A federal court has ordered a settlement in two cases that challenged the United States navy’s training and testing activities off the coasts of Hawaii and Southern California.

Environmental legal aid organization Earthjustice tells the Guardian that the settlement will secure “long-sought protections for whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals by limiting navy activities in vital habitats”.

The settlement announced on Monday establishes new regulations from 2018 that the navy must abide by when conducting activities in the water.

In March, a US district court in Hawaii found that the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) improperly gave approval to the navy’s use of sonar in the Pacific, an issue long contested by environmental groups that allege sonar is causing damage to marine animals’ migration patterns, feeding locations, breeding and ability to hear and communicate. The navy uses sonar for training, to simulate real-life situations in the ocean.

Earthjustice, Greenpeace and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have brought forward actions against the navy over the impact sonar and other training activities have on whales, orcas and other marine life.

The settlement will help change the status quo in the Pacific, environmental organizations said. “This settlement proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Marsha Green, president of the Ocean Mammal Institute, in a statement. “The Navy can meet its training and testing needs and, at the same time, provide significant protections to whales and dolphins by limiting the use of sonar and explosives in vital habitat.”

According to Earthjustice, the deal will prohibit the navy “from using mid-frequency active sonar for training and testing activities in important habitat for beaked whales between Santa Catalina Island and San Nicolas Island” and “from using mid-frequency active sonar for training and testing activities in important habitat for blue whales feeding near San Diego”. It also requires that “surface vessels must use ‘extreme caution’ and travel at a safe speed to minimize the risk of ship strikes in blue whale feeding habitat and migratory corridors for blue, fin, and gray whales.”

Similar regulations are also in place off Hawaiian waters, but they are specific for the species present near Hawaii. They include special prohibitions on excesses speeds in order to protect humpback whales.

The new rules will be implemented in 2018 after a current navy agreement expires.

This article titled “Whales to gain ‘long-sought protections’ as navy limits sonar use, activists say” was written by Joseph Mayton, for theguardian.com on Monday 14th September 2015 22.21 UTC

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