The U.S. Navy has agreed to set aside vast swaths of ocean territory off the shores of Hawaii and Southern California in an effort to protect sound-sensitive marine mammals from the effects of sonar and powerful explosives used in military exercises.

For years, marine biologists have warned about the detrimental effects of high-intensity, mid-frequency sounds on marine mammals, including endangered blue whales. Many of these creatures depend on the acoustic environment to “see” their world, and noise pollution from human activities — particularly military exercises — can cause strandings, avoidance of usual habitats, abandonment, and sometimes death, the biologists say.

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In 2013, the U.S. Navy set up a five-year Pacific weapons testing and training plan that would have exposed whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals to an estimated 9.6 million occurrences of high-intensity sonar exercises and underwater detonations.

That set up a legal battle between Earthjustice and the National Marine Fisheries Service, who approved the Navy’s plan. Earthjustice claimed that the plan was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this year, a federal judge agreed with Earthjustice, and now, after months of negotiations, the Navy has agreed to create the safe havens.

Areas off the coast of Southern California, where certain U.S. Navy activities will be limited under the settlement. (Image caption and credit: Earthjustice)

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“If a whale or dolphin can’t hear, it can’t survive,“ noted Earthjustice attorney David Henkin in a release. “By agreeing to this settlement, the Navy acknowledges that it doesn’t need to train in every square inch of the ocean and that it can take reasonable steps to reduce the deadly toll of its activities.”

The agreement, which expires in 2018, will protect habitat off the coast of Southern California—a globally important feeding area—and whale and dolphin populations off Hawaii.

[ Earthjustice ]


Email the author at george@io9.com and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image: Areas around the Maui 4-Island Complex, where certain U.S. Navy activities will be limited under the settlement (Image caption and credit: Earthjustice)