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Wednesday, 12 February 2014 06:08

Nuclear Submarines, Whales and Tourists Don't Mix

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USS Greeneville returns from deployment. (Photo<a href=" http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnavy/5549870793/"target="_blank"> by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ronald Gutridge for the Official U.S. Navy Imagery / Flickr</a>)USS Greeneville returns from deployment. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ronald Gutridge for the Official U.S. Navy Imagery / Flickr)ANN WRIGHT FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

It looks like the U.S. Navy is playing fast and loose with the new military exercise regulations in areas with a concentration of marine mammals that it has received from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

One seldom sees a nuclear submarine on the surface of the ocean except when they are going into homeports, such as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. But, this weekend I saw three U.S. nuclear submarines on the surface with crewmen sunning themselves on the deck—in a protected national marine sanctuary, no less!

I was whale watching off the Hawaiian island of Maui, Sunday, February 9, 2014 and was shocked to see three U.S. Navy nuclear submarines surface and remain about a mile offshore from the town of Lahina in the shallow waters of the protected Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

December to March is when the greatest concentration of humpback whales in the world gather to calve in the shallow basin between the islands of Maui, Lanai, Ko'olawhe and Molokai. Yet this is the time that the U.S. Navy has chosen to have military exercises and have brought fast moving, sonar emitting nuclear submarines into the protected sanctuary.

Whale watching is one of the biggest tourist attractions of Hawaii and, under strict guidelines, dozens of small boats each day take tourists out to watch the whales. The basin off Maui has the largest concentration of small commercial boats for whale watching in the Hawaiian Islands.

Almost 13 years ago to the day, on February 9, 2001, the U.S.S. Grenville, a nuclear submarine conducting a rapid ascent practice, surfaced off Honolulu and came up under a Japanese student fishing boat the Ehime Maru, a Japanese maritime student training vessel, breaking the 191 foot ship apart and killing 9 of the 35 on board (four were high school students) and sending the ship to the bottom of the ocean with the nine bodies. Because of the diplomat crisis over the sinking of the training vessel, the U.S. Navy conducted one of the largest salvage missions in its history to recover the bodies and move the ship to its final resting point 12 miles off Honolulu.

In late January, 2014, the National Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service for violation of multiple federal laws by allowing the Navy to increase sonar and live-fire training in Hawaii and California for the next five years. The fisheries service decision allows the Navy's training exercises to "incidentally" kill up to 13 marine mammals annually in the training areas over the next five years and cause up to 1.7 million annual incidents of low-level harassment, which includes potential disruption of nursing and breeding. The Navy also asked for authorization to produce up to 266 annual incidents that could result in injuries to marine mammals. The NRDC's lawsuit argues that both the fisheries service and the Navy are ignoring the "best available science" in their findings, stating that the noise from sonar, underwater demolition and pile driving will cause significant long-term damage to whales and other marine mammals. The most intense underwater sounds used in U.S. Navy training are produced by anti-submarine warfare sonar and explosives.

The U.S. Navy's 456 page 2012 report Biological Opinion and Conference Report on U.S. Navy Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing 2013-2018 concedes that the sounds are within the audible ranges of most whales, but that the sounds are limited in time, area and frequency with sonar pulses lasting up to a few seconds each and anti-submarine sonar transmitting only a few times per minute.

I called the public affairs office of the U.S. Navy in Hawaii and asked if they could provide me with the names of the three submarines that surfaced off Maui. I was told that the Navy's concern for operational security of the submarines did not allow them to reveal the names. When I asked if having three submarines surface in one of the most visible and trafficked area in Hawaii and remain on the surface for hours didn't compromise the operational security of submarines, I was met with silence.

For the safety of whales and humans, the U.S. Navy should stop military exercises for its nuclear submarines and other naval vessels in the congested waters around the Hawaiian Islands.

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Ann Wright served 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves and is a retired Colonel. She was in the U.S. diplomatic corps for 16 years and served in U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the U.S. government in 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq. She is the co-author of Dissent: Voices of Conscience. She lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.