Judge Rules in Favor of Whales, Dolphins Deafened by Navy Sonar

In a long-awaited watershed ruling, a federal judge ruled the US Navy is harming marine animals when it uses underwater sonar as part of warfare training exercises.

The judge ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) wrongly approved these Naval training activities off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington. NMFS failed to use "best available science" to assess the extent and duration of impacts to whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions. NMFS must now reassess those permits to make sure they comply with the Endangered Species Act.

For at least a decade, the Natural Resources Defense Council has been trying unsuccessfully to get the Navy to stop using sonar in calfing grounds and other sensitive areas for marine animals that depend on sound for orientation and communication over long distances.

In 2008, the Supreme Court lifted part of a moratorium on using sonar in military testing when whales are in the vicinity.

Navy sonar

"This is a victory for dozens of protected species of marine mammals, including critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises," says Steve Mashuda, an attorney with Earthjustice which, along with NRDC, represented a coalition of environmental groups and Indian tribes. "NMFS must now employ the best science and require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to avoid and minimize harm from its training activities."

The Navy conducts training activities from the Canadian border to Northern California: anti-submarine warfare exercises that involve tracking aircraft and sonar; surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises; air-to-surface bombing exercises; and extensive testing of new weapons systems.

In 2010 and 2012, NMFS gave the Navy permits that allow it to harm or "take" marine mammals and other sea life through 2015. These activities disrupt migration, nursing, breeding and  feeding, primarily due to the deafening sounds of sonar. 

The court found NMFS ignored this information in handing out the permit. It is required to evaluate permits based on "best science" for endangered animals. Also, in giving out a permit through 2015, it failed to analyze the long-term impacts which are also required under the law. The Navy plans on conducting these exercises indefinitely.

"The Navy’s Northwest Training Range is the size of the state of California, yet not one square inch was off-limits to the most harmful aspects of naval testing and training activities," says Zak Smith, staff attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. "NMFS relied on faulty science when approving the Navy’s permits and thousands of marine mammals suffered the consequences."

"Today’s ruling gives whales and other marine mammals a fighting chance against the Navy," says Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "This ruling means that the Navy must take greater precautions to protect marine life."

The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in, among other places, the Bahamas, Greece, Canary Islands, Spain and Hawaii.

For many years, environmental organizations have warned against the cacophony of sounds that pervade the oceans from thousands of vessels, seismic surveys for oil and sonar for military exercises.

Along the East coast, oil companies got permission for seismic tests to determine where it’s best to drill for oil. They use high-pressure air guns and other methods. 

Imagine blasting dynamite in a neighborhood every 10-12 seconds for weeks or months on end. Now imagine that you can’t see, and depend on your hearing to feed, communicate  and just about everything else you need for survival. That’s the situation whales, fish, and other marine wildlife face.

Learn more about the impacts of sonar on marine life:

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