RIMPAC Invites Ships, World Nations—And Environmental Fury

Jun 30, 2016

Credit Flickr / U.S. Pacific Fleet

Starting today, the largest international maritime exercise begins in Hawai‘i. The Rim of the Pacific, also known as RIMPAC, is in its 25th year since the military training exercise begin in 1971. Parts of it involve explosives and underwater sonar -- a point of concern for environmental groups. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.

When you look at the numbers, it’s no surprise that RIMPAC is the largest naval exercise in the world. 45 ships from 26 nations and more than 25,000 personnel will take part in this year’s series of military drills. Navy spokeswoman Rochelle Rieger says participants will practice everything from counter piracy and disaster relief to complex war fighting.

“The point of that is to get everybody to cooperate together and work together in case anything was ever to come up that we would need to work with coalition forces on,” said Rieger. “We need to make sure that we can all be cooperative when necessary.”

Credit Flickr / U.S. Pacific Fleet

But the massive exercise also comes with its share of controversy. Environmental groups claim the active sonar and explosive devices used in Navy training are dangerous to ocean and marine life.

“The type of harm that Navy training exercises inflict on marine mammals has some relation to the intensity of activity,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “The more you’re bombarding marine mammal populations with active sonar, the more in water explosives—the worse it is.”

Henkin says these activities can result in permanent damage such as loss of hearing, internal injuries, and even death. Last year, Henkin was part of a legal team that reached a settlement with the Navy, who agreed to limit its use of sonar and explosives in certain areas off California and Hawai‘i.

“The harm is real and the harm is well-supported by the science,” Henkin said. “So we have serious concerns about RIMPAC.”

Melon-headed whales swimming off the coast of Hawaii.
Credit Robin W. Baird/Cascadia Research

“It’s a complex situation and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to protecting these populations,” said Robin Baird, a marine biologist with Cascadia Research Collective, a nonprofit group based in Olympia, Washington. He’s been studying marine mammals in Hawai‘i and the impact of sonar since 1999. But he says when it comes to studying RIMPAC, it hasn’t been easy.

“RIMPAC extends over about four weeks and is more free-flowing in terms of where the vessels operate,” Baird explained. “From the perspective of trying to look at impacts, it’s a little more difficult to actually end up with overlap between tagged animals and Navy sonar.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s without great concern. He points to an event in 2004 when 150 to 200 melon-headed whales stormed into Hanalei Bay, while RIMPAC exercises were underway.

“Melon-headed whales were effectively in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Baird. “The most plausible explanation for that event was the reaction to Navy sonar.”

Baird says he’d like to see the Navy change their practices. Henkin agrees and thinks the greater public should discuss whether or not to do away with RIMPAC entirely.

“It’s not just an exercise for training and proficiency for our Navy. We invite folks from around the world to come and cause damage to our environment here in Hawai‘I,” said Henkin. “Whether that’s something that we want to accept is something we need to think seriously about.”

The Navy says personnel are trained to reduce harm to marine life as part of a broader commitment to the environment. Prior to any exercise, participants are trained to lookout for any marine life. Navy spokeswoman Rochelle Rieger said these procedures have been developed in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service and are in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

“Where we live and where we work, we take the stewardship of that environment very seriously,” said Rieger.

RIMPAC exercises will continue through August 4th.