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A Little "Peace On Earth" for Washington's Orcas?

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PHOTO: The National Marine Fisheries Service must review its permit that allows U.S. Navy training exercises along the Pacific coast. Research shows using sonar could be adversely affecting orcas and other marine mammals. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
PHOTO: The National Marine Fisheries Service must review its permit that allows U.S. Navy training exercises along the Pacific coast. Research shows using sonar could be adversely affecting orcas and other marine mammals. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
November 29, 2013

SEATTLE - This holiday season may bring a little more "peace on earth" to Washington's famous orcas and other marine mammals along the coast. A federal judge has given the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) a deadline to come up with a new plan to protect sea life from the damaging effects of sonar used in Navy training exercises. NMFS issues five-year permits for the training, and tribal and wildlife advocates had challenged the latest one.

Attorney Kristen Boyles with Earthjustice said they are asking that some areas be avoided during certain times of year, when the loud, shrill sonar disrupts underwater feeding and breeding.

"There's not one square inch of our coastline that is off-limits to Navy training," Boyles pointed out. "We don't have any desire to stop training, but we do think that it shouldn't be anywhere, anytime, anyhow."

Studies have shown that sonar also can interfere with the animals' navigation, prompting some to strand themselves trying to flee the sound, Boyles said. However, the permit allows a certain number of marine life casualties as part of the Navy training.

The court ruled two months ago that the Fisheries Service had not taken new studies into account that show whales and other marine mammals are more sensitive to sonar than previously thought. Boyles said the new plan also has to take the long-term effects of sonar use into account.

"What the court found back in September was, you can't just look at a five-year chunk when you know that this activity is going to take place for decades. You really do have to look at the long-term impact of this amount of noise and sonar, under water," she said.

The new deadline for updating the permit is August. The Fisheries Service had asked the court for a more limited review and wanted to wait until the current permit expires.

The decision can be viewed at earthjustice.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA