A coalition of American Indian and environmental groups is challenging the U.S. Navy's use of sonar in training along the West Coast.
The groups include Earthjustice, several tribes, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC has been tussling with the National Marine Fisheries Service for more than a dozen years over how the Navy conducts training in Southern California waters. This new lawsuit challenges permits for Navy training from Washington state down to California.
The U.S. Navy uses federal waters divided into regions for submarine warfare training, surface-to-air missile practice, and other forms of testing. NRDC's Zak Smith argues that the National Marine Fisheries Service should do more to protect against the threat sonar poses to whales, dolphins, and other animals migrating in the Pacific Ocean.
"We know generally the parameters and time periods when those occur," Smith said. "And putting limitations on where the Navy can use solar just during those time periods could have a huge benefit to those species that migrate from the pacific northwest region through southern California waters."
Smith says migratory whales and dolphins swim between California and that region. He says federal officials must minimize the harm from sonar to marine mammals.
"And now that's the stage where we say, okay, it's great that you're doing this, and the result is inadequate. Because you're still standing by old mitigation measures and techniques that courts have found to be ineffectual and inadequate," Smith said. "And you're not again setting aside any areas where the impacts of sonar won't be felt by marine mammals."
Environmental groups began challenging the military's practices in the Southern California region about 15 years ago. They argue mid-frequency sonar makes marine life behave differently, in some cases causing mammals to die.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in a case concerning Navy sonar three years ago that national security is a very strong public interest. Still, Smith and the coalition argue the National Marine Fisheries Service aren't even doing the minimum job of balancing protections for marine mammals under current laws.
A federal judge in the northern district of California will hear the case later this year.