- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008


A very Californian saga over whales, the Navy and the use of sonar during anti-submarine warfare exercises off the West Coast continues. Weeks ago, President Bush tried to exempt the Navy from laws that prohibit sonar within 2,200 yards of whales and dolphins, or within 12 miles of the coast, on account of the harm the sound blast causes these mammals. Last week, a California judge threw that move out. The Navy cannot be exempted as Mr. Bush intends, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled.

The reality is this: Californians’ affection for whales shouldn’t be allowed to deprive the rest of the country of a Navy fully prepared for crisis. But perhaps reasonable people should slow this cartoonish storyline down. No one has made a fully persuasive case that the conflict is in fact irreconcilable. And no one is waiting to see whether the Navy’s mitigation techniques work — in which case, it is the law that needs fixing, not the Navy’s training practices.

For its part, the Navy still must demonstrate to a wide audience what the costs of compliance would be. It may well cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the medium term to move these exercises involving massive ships and thousands of personnel beyond 12 miles from the coast. It may cost untold training hours to shut sonar down when whales arrive. The Navy should have assigned a team to figure it out and publicize the findings yesterday. The public already knows that human safety comes first. Let’s also put a price tag on whale safety, which activists regularly and conveniently fail to do.

The price tag would cover possibly as few as five whales — one reason the environmentalists are the more cynical ones here. We do not hear much rebuttal of the Pentagon’s observation that an average of five sonar-related whale strandings occur per year, as compared to 3,600 for natural causes and a reported staggering 600,000 due to commercial fishing. In such a context, to argue that five strandings is five too many is a fringe argument, plain and simple.

Besides, this saga has moved forward even though the Navy enacted new “mitigation” procedures last month. Subsequent performance is worth watching. But, no, the aggrieved press releases fly anyway. If the early success of the Navy’s mitigation techniques continues, then the solution is simple: Amend the National Environmental Policy Act to allow the Navy’s newer, more ginger use of sonar.

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