Military training in the NW Hawaiian Islands

National Monument, watery grave?

What does the U.S. Navy have against whales?

Joan Conrow
Mar 19, 2008

When President Bush signed a proclamation June 15, 2006 making the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding waters a national monument, many Islanders believed the region would be kept safe from harm.

But conservationists contend that the triad of state and federal agencies charged with overseeing Papaha-naumokua-kea-the nation’s first marine monument and world’s largest marine conservation area-has been lax in developing a management plan and enforcing regulations, while largely excluding the public from the decision-making process.

As a result, environmentalists say, hundreds of persons-including participants in an extreme canoe paddling event-have been granted access to the remote, fragile, 137,797 square mile ecosystem over the past 21 months, and scientists on one of the first research expeditions cultivated coral disease aboard their vessel and dumped contaminated water overboard.

And now, critics say, the Monument Management Board (MMB) that oversees Papahanaumokuakea is standing idly by while the monument faces perhaps its biggest threat: Military activities staged by the U.S. Navy.

“This is like the next thing and I thought surely they [MMB]‘d say something about this,” says Marti Townsend, program director for KAHEA, the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance. “But no, they said it was out of their jurisdiction.”

Military activities that could be conducted within the monument include shooting down aerial targets and using high- and mid-intensity sonar, which has been linked to death and stranding in whales and other marine mammals.

“I was very shocked to hear that the Navy plans to use the monument for training exercises,” said Jessica Wooley, an O’ahu attorney and member of the Reserve Advisory Committee (RAC). The panel-created to provide public input into plans to make the NWHI a marine sanctuary-was shelved, but not disbanded, when it became a monument instead. “It’s a complete mystery to me why they chose that area.”

Capt. Dean Leech, environmental counsel for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, says the Navy wants to operate in the monument, which lies within the Hawai’i Range Complex, “because when these guys are training, they need a lot of space.” And they can’t train outside the monument’s boundaries, he says, because the Navy often is “integrating a number of exercises simultaneously” within the Range that must be proximate to one another.

Wooley, Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, KAHEA members, former commercial fisherman Buzzy Agard and others who worked for years to gain protective status for the NWHI say they never dreamed things would turn out like this. “How did we go from trying to define how many more years some very minor commercial fishing interests could fish to allowing the military to move in? It’s not looking good for the resource,” Wooley says.
Where’s the public input?

Conservationists pin much of the blame on the MMB, which includes members from the federal Departments of Commerce and Interior, the state Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The panel meets in private to vet use permits and develop management and use plans. “It doesn’t seem there is any interface with the public,” Atchitoff says. “The whole focus now seems to be to let scientists do research and the military do what it wants.”

Dan Polhemus, director of the DAR, responds that he understands “the frustration” of those who worked to protect the NWHI and now feel excluded. MMB recognizes the need for a community advisory council, he says, but the Monument was created under the federal Antiquities Act, which includes no provision for citizen participation. “So we’re trying to figure out how to do that,” Polhemus says, noting that the public does have the right to comment on use permits that go before the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

The public, though, has little time to respond to permit applications once they go before the Land Board, where only very broad conditions can be imposed, KAHEA’s Townsend says, adding, “These are public resources and they need public oversight and transparency.”

Polhemus says public hearings will be held on the management plan, due out in April. However, he isn’t certain when the MMB will create a mechanism for ongoing public involvement in Monument affairs, largely because the panel has been focused on other issues, he says. These include adapting a management plan originally developed for a sanctuary into one that is suitable for a monument-all while meeting National Environmental Protection Act regulations. “We had a monument handed to us and overnight we had to figure out how to manage it,” Polhemus says, comparing the process to living in a house while installing the electricity and plumbing.

As for military activities, Polhemus says he agrees that “that could be a major issue,” but noted that the proclamation establishing Papahanaumokuakea “does give the military some pretty broad exemptions in terms of what it can do.” The decision on whether to take a stand regarding military activities likely would be made by the “senior executive board,” which includes top officials from each participating agency, rather than the MMB, Polhemus says. The MMB “might provide candid analysis and comment,” to the executive board, Polhenums says, while noting, “I haven’t looked at the military’s plan in detail and it hasn’t been sent to me.”
Navy seeks authorized takes

Last August, the Navy released its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Hawai’i Range Complex-encompassing 235,000 square nautical miles, all 18 Hawaiian Islands, Ka’ula rock and Johnston Atoll. It has already completed public hearings on the draft, and is now staging informational meetings on a draft supplement that deals specifically with the use of sonar (see sidebar). That issue has been the subject of litigation both in California and Hawai’i, where federal district Judge David Ezra issued an injunction on Feb. 29 prohibiting the Navy from carrying out its undersea warfare activities without adding measures to protect marine mammals. The ruling, issued in response to a suit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of several plaintiffs, also requires the Navy to prepare a new and separate EIS on the impacts of its high-intensity, mid-frequency active sonar.

The Navy’s draft EIS “does not predict any marine mammal mortalities” or serious injuries from sonar activities, while it does concede that mammals may die during the training. “However, given the frequency of naturally occurring marine mammal stranding in Hawai’i (e.g. natural mortality), it is conceivable that a stranding could co-occur within the timeframe of a Navy exercise, even though the stranding may be unrelated to Navy activities.” But because the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) advised the Navy to consider “scientific uncertainty and potential for mortality,” according to the draft EIS, the Navy is requesting that it be granted 20 serious injury or mortality “takes” over five years (from July 2008 to July 2013) for seven species of marine mammals-including melon-headed whales, bottle-nosed dolphins, pygmy killer whales, short-finned pilot whales and three species of beaked whales.

The draft supplement also acknowledges that sonar exercises within the Range will result in marine mammal behavioral changes that NMFS classifies as “harassment.” That doesn’t sufficiently convey the potential harm, according to Atchitoff. “The Navy still refuses to acknowledge the potentially lethal behavioral impacts [on marine mammals]. It’s basically the Navy and Navy-funded research against the world,” Atchitoff says.

Capt. Leech says that while the Navy is allowed to conduct sonar activities within the monument, “I don’t foresee guys going up there much, if at all,” because most of the acoustic monitoring devices are placed on the ocean floor off the west coast of Kaua’i.

Navy activities that likely will be conducted within the monument, according to Leech, include “sink exercises,” in which old boats and other unmanned craft are destroyed with missiles or torpedoes, and using missiles launched from Kaua’i to shoot down targets over Nihoa and Necker (also known as Mokumanamana).

“Who knows what kind of contamination this [missile destruction] will rain down on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?” Townsend asks. Leech dismissed concerns that shoot-downs could be detrimental to reefs and ocean water quality, saying, “Any of the contaminants would be destroyed when the missile hits. The amount of energy that’s released when those go off is extraordinary. We don’t even use explosives. It’s sheer kinetic energy.”

There will be debris falling, however, according to the draft EIS, which states, “Some current flight trajectories could result in missiles such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) flying over portions of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Preliminary results of debris analysis indicate that debris is not expected to severely harm threatened, endangered, migratory or other endemic species on or offshore of Nihoa and Necker Islands. Quantities of falling debris will be very low and widely scattered so as not to present a toxicity issue. Falling debris will also have cooled down sufficiently so as not to present a fire hazard for vegetation and habitat.”
Training in NWHI doesn’t make sense

Mimi Olry, the state’s Marine Conservation Coordinator and a Hawaiian monk seal expert, was surprised to learn the military is planning activities within the monument-the primary breeding habitat for monk seals. Such exercises “would be detrimental,” she says. “The seals are in a crisis situation already. Any more disturbance, introduction of invasive species and diseases or disruptions of the reef system and ecology there would further harm the population.” Although the monk seal population in the main Hawaiian Islands is slowly increasing, Olry says, “We’re losing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands population at a greater rate. The young seals [in the monument] aren’t making it the first year. They’re starving. Something’s not right in the ecosystem up there.”

According to the most recent report of the Monk Seal Recovery Plan, the current population of 1,200 seals is “predicted to fall below 1,000 animals within the next three to four years. This places the Hawaiian monk seal among the world’s most endangered species,” the document states. Olry also expresses concern about military activities involving Nihoa and Necker, because seals reside on those two small islands and swim between Ni’ihau and Kaua’i. It’s unclear why seals are coming to the main Hawaiian Islands, Olry says, but it’s certain that they face grave risks here. A number of seals have died in recent years after contracting bacterial diseases carried by livestock, cats and dogs and others have drowned in gill nets.

With regard to the fragile Monument ecosystem, Wooley says that military activities within Papahanaumokuakea are a particular concern because they violate the “precautionary principle,” a concept that served as the fundamental premise in drafting plans to protect the NWHI. “The idea was to not take any action unless you know it’s not going to cause harm,” she says. “The military makes mistakes. It’s pretty much impossible to restore or replace resources that exist in the monument.”

Leech says he believes military uses are compatible with the Monument’s role in preserving a unique marine ecosystem “and here’s the reason why. Our people have incredible resources in place to protect those areas so they can continue training. When it comes to these live fire areas, we have a vested interest in taking care of them. We know there won’t be any more created, but they’re critical for our people to train in.”

Others point out that the military may, to say the least, have different priorities when it comes to preserving areas for training. “The military has done a lousy job of protecting the environment. I’ve seen what the military has done to Pearl Harbor, Makua Valley, Kaho’olawe. We no need screw up our islands any more,” Ray Catania, a member of the Kaua’i Alliance for Peace and Social Justice, said in testimony delivered at last week’s Navy hearing on Kaua’i.

Regardless, Leech says the military can’t be excluded from operating within the Monument. “Not the way the proclamation [creating the monument] is written now,” he says. That may be true, Townsend responds, “But those same regulations also say that the military has to minimize and mitigate their activities to the maximum extent practical. But enforcing that comes down to political will on the part of the Monument co-managers. And only public support for the protections will create that political will.”

Townsend, Wooley and others aren’t convinced the MMB has the political will to stand up to the military or monitor its compliance with mitigation measures, given that it’s already approved permits for research, ecotourism and recreational activities that, they contend, also violate the precautionary principle.

“People think they’re doing no harm,” says Agard, who spent years fishing in the NWHI until rapidly declining fish populations prompted him to become an ardent conservationist. “But every time the human presence occurs out there, it has caused a problem. I think a better criteria would be no human footprint.”
The cost of preservation

Critics also are concerned about the $2 million to $3 million in federal funds allocated annually for research in the Monument, saying permits are being granted without full public review or adequate oversight, and without adoption of an overall research plan. “That money is an added incentive for people to develop an idea in the name of research so they can visit the place, take in the sights and get bragging rights,” Agard says. “People are sitting down dreaming up ways to get in there.”

Townsend agrees. “When you have millions of dollars in federal research money coming in, it creates an opportunity for everybody to go astray.

Polhemus counters that the MMB has provided good oversight and the research is needed because “it’s very difficult to manage what you don’t understand. I’d say we can use all the information we can get at this time.”

But according to Agard, in order for the Monument to regenerate and ultimately help repopulate depleted fisheries in the main Islands, “people need to stay away and leave it alone.” His views are shared by Dr. Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, who wrote in Eye of the Albatross (Henry Holt & Company, Inc. 2003) about the NWHI: “These tiny sites are the reproductive generators of wildlife inhabiting many millions of square miles of ocean … without these safe havens wildlife populations throughout the North Pacific would shrivel.”

“Surely,” Agard says, “one little place in the world ought to serve as an example of what we should or might do.”

For more by Joan Conrow visit [].
Take that, monk seals! Hard rain gonna fall

State and federal processes that address U.S. Navy plans for the Hawai’i Range Complex, including the Papaha-naumokua-kea National Marine Monument, are currently under way.

The Office of State Planning is reviewing the Navy’s Draft EIS for the Range to determine if proposed activities are consistent with the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA). As part of that review, it can impose additional mitigation measures.

Meanwhile, the Navy conducted public information meetings throughout the state on a Supplemental Draft EIS that specifically addresses the use of sonar within the Range.

At the first session, held last Thursday on Kaua’i, a resident of that island expressed confusion at how military activities could occur in a national monument. “What [President] Bush just declared is protected lands, you’re gonna start bombing on them,” said Craig Davies. “Things are all mixed up.”-J.C.

Comments on the CZMA can be submitted through March 24 and the Navy’s supplemental EIS through April 7. Visit [] or [] for details.


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