Court Orders U.S. Navy to Limit Sonar, Monitor for Whales

LOS ANGELES, California, January 3, 2008 (ENS) – A federal court in California has imposed a 12 nautical mile no-sonar exclusion zone along the California coast to protect whales and other marine mammals from mid-frequency sonar used by the U.S. Navy during training exercises.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California today issued a preliminary injunction requiring the exclusion zone as part of a series of mitigation measures that will govern the use of mid-frequency sonar by the U.S. Navy in the waters off Southern California.

The high-intensity mid-frequency sonar can produce harmful levels of underwater noise that has killed and injured marine mammals in several incidents around the world.

Calling elements of the Navy’s mitigation scheme “grossly inadequate to protect marine mammals from debilitating levels of sonar exposure,” the court ordered that sonar be excluded from Catalina Basin, an area of high marine mammal density.

The court ordered intensive monitoring for marine mammals before and during sonar use and an expanded safety zone and shutdown of the sonar when marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards.

Two dedicated lookouts, trained by the National Marine Fisheries Service, must be on board the Navy vessel using the sonar for monitoring during exercises.

Blue whale surfaces for air off
the coast of California (Photo
courtesy Big Sur Chamber of

“We have said from the beginning of this litigation that the Navy can meet its training objectives while substantially increasing protections against unnecessary harm to whales and other marine mammals,” said Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, which filed the lawsuit.

“We are very pleased that the Court has agreed with us and has enjoined the Navy from conducting these exercises unless it takes the necessary precautions,” Reynolds said.

The waters off Southern California hold five endangered species of whales, a globally important population of endangered blue whales, the largest animal ever to live on Earth, and seven species of beaked whales, which are known to be particularly vulnerable to underwater sound, said Reynolds.

On November 13, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had ordered the Navy not to use high-intensity sonar in its future training exercises off Southern California until serious questions over likely harm to marine mammals could be resolved, and had ordered the district court to impose mitigations on the Navy exercises sufficient to “provide adequate safeguards for the protection of the environment.”

In early August, a coalition led by NRDC won an injunction from the district court, which concluded that without adequate measures to protect marine life, the Navy’s use of high-intensity sonar during training exercises likely violates federal environmental laws.

The court wrote that the injunction was necessary given the “near certainty” that the use of mid-frequency sonar during the planned Southern California exercises would cause irreparable harm to the environment, and characterized the Navy’s mitigation measures as “woefully inadequate and ineffectual.”

In late August, a three-judge motion’s panel of the court of appeals granted, in a split decision, a stay of injunction, allowing the Navy to use sonar during its exercises. That stay was reversed on November 13.

“Based on a careful weighing of the various interests, the court has issued an order that significantly enhances protections for marine mammals in Southern California,” said Richard Kendall, a senior partner at the Los Angeles law firm of Irell & Manella, and co-counsel with NRDC in the lawsuit.

Mitigation measures were urged on the Navy months ago by the California Coastal Commission, which found them necessary to bring the training exercises into compliance with California’s coastal laws.

NRDC was joined in the lawsuit by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cetacean Society International, League for Coastal Protection, Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau.

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