HONOLULU - The Navy says it won't comply with sonar training restrictions that aim to protect marine mammals off the California coast, arguing that the commission that imposed the rules does not have the jurisdiction to do so.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement Monday that the California Coastal Commission's rules cannot be applied beyond the scope of state waters, three nautical miles from shore.
"The Navy does not take lightly our responsibility to the environment and marine life," said Vice Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet in San Diego. "And we can be responsible environmental stewards while our sonar operators receive realistic training and experience at sea they need."
The Navy has been using sonar during training exercises off the California coast for decades, a practice that critics say can injure whales and other sea mammals. Last year, it sought permission for the exercises from the commission as part of new internal guidelines to ensure major exercises are environmentally sound.
The commission agreed to the exercises last month. But it also imposed restrictions on use of mid-frequency active sonar in a zone the Navy said was outside the commission's jurisdiction.
Mark Delaplaine, a project analyst for the commission, said members might take up the issue later in the week.
"We've got some stuff to think about and figure out as to what a proper response would be," he said.
Environmentalists on Tuesday criticized the Navy's decision, accusing it of denying the commission's authority to protect mammals off its coast. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has sued to stop other Navy sonar training, vowed to sue if the coastal commission does not.
"The notion that the commission is pre-empted from protecting marine mammals off the California coast is not only without any legal basis but it is in direct contradiction to the fact that the commission has been doing exactly that for decades under the federal law protecting our coasts," said Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Environmentalists say whales have stranded themselves on beaches after being exposed to high-intensity mid-frequency sonar. The sonar is also claimed to interfere with the ability of marine mammals to navigate, hunt, take care of their offspring and avoid predators.
The Navy acknowledges mid-frequency active sonar can contribute to marine mammal injury, or even death. It says it takes steps to protect marine mammals, such as posting lookouts on board to watch for marine mammals nearby.
But the Pacific Fleet said the commission's rules would prevent the Navy from training sailors to use sonar to track enemy submarines. It has made anti-submarine warfare training a top priority, as other nations, including China, have acquired submarines that are quieter and harder to detect.