Supreme Court Allows Navy to Continue Using Sonar

November 13, 2008 01:29 PM
by Rachel Balik
The Supreme Court ruled that the Navy’s use of sonar is essential to national security and should continue despite threats to marine life.

SCOTUS Says Yes to Navy Sonar

In a 5–4 ruling, the Supreme Court has determined 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.

Background: The Case Against Sonar

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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