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Navy Agrees To Sonar Limits, Other Marine Life Protections In The Pacific

The Navy on Monday agreed to prohibit explosives and sonar, which are harmful to marine life, in certain waters off Hawaii and California.

Last updated on September 15, 2015, at 6:38 p.m. ET

Posted on September 14, 2015, at 10:19 p.m. ET

Robyn Beck / Getty Images

A gray whale dives off the coast of California near Long Beach.

The Navy has agreed to curb its use of sonar and other training exercises off Hawaii and California that have been found to harm whales and other marine mammals, according to a new agreement with environmental groups that was approved Monday.

The agreement, which was signed by a federal judge in Honolulu, focuses on areas in the water that the Navy will greatly limit its training activities, including use of mid-frequency sonar and explosives. In March, a U.S. District court sided with environmentalists who had sued stop the exercises.

David Henkin, an attorney for the environmental legal aid organization Earthjustice, called the resulting settlement a watershed moment.

"It's going to have very important ramifications for all future training approvals because the law requires them to do as much as they can do practically to limit injury and death," Henkin told BuzzFeed News.

The environmental groups' case focused on sonar and explosives, which are considered to be the most harmful to marine life.

Sonar is known to cause marine animals to beach themselves, and can cause permanent hearing loss when used in close proximity to whales and dolphins.

In 2011, a Navy explosive blew up four dolphins off the coast of San Diego, Henkin said.

The Navy's estimate for harm included more than 2,000 permanent injuries — such as from ship strikes, sonar, or explosives — to marine life over a five-year period.

The Navy is allowed by the National Marine Fisheries Service to cause 143 deaths to marine mammals, including 3 from ship strikes, over the five-year period. The Navy is also allowed to kill 10 beaked whale deaths, which it requested because of their "apparent sensitivity to underwater sound," Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, told BuzzFeed News.

The new deal does not impact the numbers of mortalities permitted, instead it restricts activities in certain areas, especially known to be home to endangered animals. Still, Henkin said the Navy's new plan is an improvement.

"The settlement agreement is a compromise, because we needed to find ways to bring down the level of harm," Henkin told BuzzFeed News.

Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries, added that the National Marine Fisheries Service is allowed to "modify, suspend or revoke" the Navy's authorization based on specific guidelines, if a death or injury to a marine mammal occurs.

Gregory Bull / AP

A pod of dolphins swim as the amphibious assault ship USS America sits on the horizon in waters off San Diego.

Monday's agreement comes after Earthjustice and other environmental groups sued in 2013, disputing the National Marine Fisheries Service's decision to allow the Navy exercises. A similar suit was filed in California by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council and the two cases were resolved in conjunction.

In March, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway ruled that the government agency violated environmental laws in approving the Navy's training practices. The ruling also said the Navy failed to look into alternative areas to train in order to avoid damage to marine life.

Knight said that after the ruling in March, the Navy faced the possibility of the court stopping "critically important training and testing."

The settlement announced on Monday will last until 2018, at which point, Henkin said he hopes the National Marine Fisheries Service will be able to use the precedent set by the case to make sure the Navy applies the maximum amount of protection to Marine life.

Lucy Pemoni / Associated Press

A one-day-old Hawaiian monk seal nurses from its mother on the beach at Midway Atoll.

The limits for the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands include:

*The agreement prohibits use of sonar and explosives off the eastern side of the Big Island and north of Maui and Molokai in order to protect endangered Hawaiian monk seals and toothed whales.

*The Navy will limit the amount of times it can do major training exercises on the western side of the Big Island and in the channel between Maui and Molokai.

*Navy vessels must also avoid ship strikes in habitats where humpback whales migrate.

Gregory Bull / AP

A gray whale breaches the surface off the coast of San Diego.

In the waters off Southern California:

*The Navy has agreed to limit the use of sonar near Santa Catalina Island, San Nicolas Island, and San Clement Island, where beaked whales live.

*Sonar is prohibited in areas where blue whales feed near San Diego.

*Navy vessels are required to use "extreme caution" to minimize ship strikes in areas where blue, fin, and gray whales migrate.