Environment & Science

Court rules that Navy sonar violates federal law

The Navy has a five-year permit to conduct training and testing exercises off the coasts of Southern California and the Hawaiian Islands.
The Navy has a five-year permit to conduct training and testing exercises off the coasts of Southern California and the Hawaiian Islands.
U.S. Navy

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Sonar used by the Navy has been shown to harm marine mammals, including species of whales and dolphins. A district court found on Tuesday that the authorization granted to the Navy for incidental injuries or killings of marine mammals during naval exercises was improperly given under tenets of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

It found several deficiencies with the justifications the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) provided for authorizing the Navy’s sonar program. At several points in the decision written by Chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway, she appears bewildered by the NMFS authorization.

“Searching the administrative record’s reams of pages for some explanation as to why the Navy’s activities were authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), this court feels like the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ who, trapped for days on a ship becalmed in the middle of the ocean, laments, ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,’” the ruling reads.

The court found that NMFS authorized the incidental killing of too many marine mammals and that claims of negligible harm to populations lacked sufficient evidence. It also found that NMFS did not use the “Best Scientific Evidence Available” when making its decision.

Environmental groups expressed satisfaction with the court’s decision.

“The opinion is a sweeping win for the plaintiffs in this case that basically found that the Conservation Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC — we won on all of the claims, that basically said that the federal government did an inadequate job,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Sakashita said that the Navy’s preparedness for war needs to be balanced with an ecologically friendly approach.

“It’s understandable that the Navy wants to be prepared for national security, but we think that they can do that at the same time as protecting our natural heritage and protecting our whales and dolphins,” Sakashita said.

The Navy did not respond to requests for comment. The National Marine Fisheries Service provided a written statement that said it was examining the court’s ruling.

“NOAA Fisheries is reviewing the judge's decision regarding the Navy's training and testing activities in the water off Hawaii and Southern California.We are evaluating what this means as far as next steps,” the statement reads.

Sakashita said that it’s unclear what mitigation the court will decide is necessary. She said it could result in limitations on where and when the Navy is allowed to use sonar.

“It’s understandable that the Navy wants to be prepared for national security, but we think that they can do that at the same time as protecting our natural heritage and protecting our whales and dolphins,” she said.

Court ruling