Navy Settles Lawsuit Over Sonar’s Effect on Whales

December 30, 2008 07:29 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The U.S. Navy agreed to settle a court case initiated by environmentalists concerned about the Navy’s use of sonar and the possible harm caused to marine animals.

Navy, Environmentalists Both Claim Win in Sonar Suit

According to the settlement, the U.S. Navy is not required to take extra steps to protect animals where sonar is used but it agreed to do further research on how sonar use affects marine animals. It will also use software and passive sonar, lookouts and aircraft to scan training areas for marine mammals, and reduce or stop using sonar when the animals are spotted near ships.

United Press International reported that both the Navy and environmentalists were declaring victory, with the Navy citing the lack of required protective measures beyond those already agreed to in 2005, and environmentalists applauding new mitigation measures for the Navy and the opening of sonar research to civilian review.

“This does not resolve all of our disputes with the Navy, but it sets in place a process to deal with future disagreements,” said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney and marine mammal protection specialist with the NRDC, to the Los Angeles Times.

The lawsuit had pressed for restrictions on midfrequency sonars, used by the Navy to find enemy submarines, saying that it harms and can even kill marine life such as whales and other mammals. The Natural Resources Defense Council and other plaintiffs had requested that the case be dismissed on Dec. 26, according to the Associated Press.

Background: Supreme Court allows Navy to continue using sonar

In a 5–4 ruling, the Supreme Court determined in November that the Navy may keep using sonar for exercises.

The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice David H. Souter dissented, while Justices Stephen G. Breyer and John Paul Stevens only partially agreed with the majority opinion. The Supreme Court blog notes that while in this case, the Court ruled that military safety took priority over marine life, that conclusion would not carry over in all instances. The blog also reports that while the court did not address whether the Navy should prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, it is in the process of doing so independently.

The case began when a district court ruled that the Navy was violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) with the use of mid-frequency active sonar (MFA). The American Bar Association reports that the Navy appealed the case, on the grounds that discontinuing sonar would greatly compromise the training of Naval forces such that sonar was necessary to preserve National Security. The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) challenged the claim of emergency circumstances and demanded that the Navy complete an environmental impact statement. A district court ruled in favor of the CEQ; however, in February, the Ninth Circuit Court also ruled that national security took priority and in June, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

The National Resource Defense Council, which represented advocacy groups in the Supreme Court case, provides information on why sonar dangers marine life. Dolphins and whales use high- and low-frequency noises for communication and locating food. Ocean noises from boats and sonar are now disrupting marine mammals’ ability to hear these sounds. In 2000, stranded and beached whales began appearing in record numbers, demonstrating signs that their dive patterns and navigating abilities were disrupted by sonar. The NRDC maintains that it does not seek complete discontinuation of sonar, but better practices.

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