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Humpback whale. Image: Christopher Swann

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US Navy to better protect whales

A BIG win on the protection of whales from US military sonar will have knock-on effects for marine life throughout the worlds’ oceans.

In the U.S. District Court’s District of Hawaii, a federal court settlement was ratified between Natural Resources Defence Council, other US environmental groups and the federal government to restrict and limit mid-frequency sonar and explosives activities off areas of the U.S. west coast in Hawaiian and Californian waters.


Last year, a number of US conservation groups filed litigation in U.S. federal court challenging Navy sonar and underwater explosives activity off Southern California and Hawaii. The Court ruled in favour of plaintiffs on multiple grounds.

Following intensive negotiations to protect marine mammals, while meeting national security needs, the US Court has now entered this agreement as an Order. 

For the first time, the US Navy has agreed to restrict and limit mid-frequency sonar and explosives activities off the U.S. west coast and to expand restrictions off Hawaii beyond humpback whales.  The settlement protects blue whale foraging grounds off San Diego County, beaked whale habitat around California’s Channel Islands, and waters around the Big Island, Maui, and Molokai that are home to numerous small, resident populations of odontocetes. 

Other provisions are intended to reduce ship-strike risk for large whales and secure research funds for beaked whale populations off Southern California.

This is a truly great result and we applaud our conservation colleagues, the US Navy and all involved in making it happen. But of course there is always more to do!

We need to see robust mitigation measures like these in all oceans – and applied by all Navies. Constructive dialogue, increased resources and commitment are needed to restrict active sonar in important marine habitats globally, not just in US waters. WDC will continue to work with Navies to better protect whales and dolphins everywhere from military activities.

We must also remember that whales and dolphins face other threats and so transparent environmental impact assessment is vital, to ensure impacts relating to military activities can be assessed and managed alongside those from pollution, ship strikes, climate change and so on.

Thanks to Michael Jasny, NRDC, for the details of this blog. More details can be found here: https://medium.com/natural-resources-defense-council/a-whale-of-a-win-afeb1f0cb71a

Blue whale photo © Tim Stenton