U.S. Supreme Court to Review Navy Sonar Harm to Whales

WASHINGTON, DC, June 23, 2008 (ENS) – The U.S. Supreme Court today accepted a request by the U.S. Navy that the court review a series of lower court rulings that restrict the Navy’s use of loud sonar blasts in submarine detection training exercises off the coast of Southern California.

The Navy, in its official environmental assessment of the exercises, acknowledges sonar use now underway in Southern California waters will disturb or injure an estimated 170,000 marine mammals, including causing permanent injury to more than 450 whales and temporary hearing impairment in at least 8,000 whales.

The underlying lawsuit was brought by a coalition of conservation organizations led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC. The other groups are the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the League for Coastal Protection, Cetacean Society International, and Ocean Futures Society and its president and founder Jean-Michel Cousteau.

U.S. Navy sonar technicians monitor
contacts on a Surface Anti Submarine
Combat System, aboard the guided
missile destroyer USS Momsen during
exercises off the coast of Southern
California. January 2008. (Photo by
Communications Specialist 2nd Class
James R. Evans courtesy U.S. Navy)

In April, the Navy petitioned the Court for review of the February 29, 2008 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, allowing naval training exercises to continue in the Southern California region but with greater environmental safeguards in the use of mid-frequency active sonar that the environment groups claim harms marine mammals.

Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal program, said, “Today’s decision was anticipated, and we have already begun to prepare for Supreme Court review.”

“It’s clear both that high intensity military sonar can injure and kill whales, dolphins, and other marine life and that the Navy can reduce the risk of this harm by commonsense safeguards without compromising our military readiness,” said Reynolds. “These have been the unanimous conclusions of every court that has considered this issue.”

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, but the environmentalists are concerned not only about whales but about all creatures that experience these loud sounds.

Jeffrey Flocken, Washington, DC director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said, “High intensity sonar and other manmade noise pose a serious threat not just to whales and other marine mammals but to the entire web of life in the ocean.”

The court-imposed mid-frequency active sonar training restrictions include a requirement to shut down sonar altogether when marine mammals are within 2,200 yards of any sonar source and to reduce sonar power by 75 percent when the Navy detects significant surface ducting conditions, whether or not a marine mammal is present.

“My primary job is to ensure that Navy ships in the Pacific are prepared to fight and win in combat,” said Vice Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, Commander, U.S. Third Fleet. “These restrictions make it very difficult to conduct the kind of realistic, integrated training exercises that ensure the combat effectiveness of our force.”

The 2,200-yard shutdown zone is 11 times greater than the existing shutdown distance that the Navy developed in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The requirement to reduce sonar power by 75 percent during significant surface ducting conditions, whether or not a marine mammal is present, will prevent Navy strike groups from conducting training to detect submarines in the same conditions in which submarines seek to hide, the commander said.

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

The top Navy official says the Navy is trying to strike a balance between the need for an effective combat force and protecting the environment.

“We can protect our national security while simultaneously being good stewards of the environment,” said Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter. “We are already taking extensive measures to protect marine mammals and we have had positive results from those measures. We are furthermore committed to an extensive data collection effort to help inform our future efforts in this regard.”

Secretary Winter said the Navy is spending $26 million on marine mammal research this year.

When using mid-frequency active sonar “during major exercises or within established DoD ranges or operating areas,” officials say the Navy adheres to marine mammal protective measures approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal regulator responsible for marine mammal protection, issued under a National Defense Exemption last year.

On January 23, 2007, the Department of Defense announced authorization of a two-year national defense exemption from requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act for naval activity involving mid-frequency active sonar use.

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