US & World

Supreme Court hears Navy sonar case

Jacques Cousteau called oceans "the silent world," but ships and sonar make the seas louder each year. This morning, the Supreme Court hears argument on whether U.S. law can limit Navy noise, as KPCC's Molly Peterson reports.

Molly Peterson: Navies around the world use sonar to track vessels rumbling offshore and through shipping lanes. The U.S. Navy uses more intense sounds to track quieter submarines. Here's how mid-range sonar sounds on the USS Shoup:

[Sound of mid-range sonar]

Peterson: To the U.S. Navy, this is an indispensable tool; the Natural Resources Defense Council argues it harms and kills marine life. Increasing numbers of studies link sonar to die-offs. There are competing theories about whether the sound causes physical harm, or just changes animals' behavior. Some scientists urge caution while they test the theories further.

A federal judge imposed tighter controls on Navy training late last year while a lawsuit's hashed out. But what a court took away, the Bush Administration gave back, citing national security concerns. The Supreme Court will now decide whether the judicial or the executive order controls. USC Constitutional law professor Rebecca Brown expects the justices will find it a tough call.

Rebecca Brown: Because it is war, and it is a branch of the armed services, so the court is going to be careful, you know, about stepping in, unless it feels that the facts are really there. So I think there's room, really, for it to go either way, honestly.

Peterson: In the meantime, the Navy still conducts training in the Pacific Ocean under the less restrictive safeguards it favors. While it's looking to expand Atlantic Ocean training, the Navy now favors a site further from where endangered right whales live.