Environment & Science

Lawsuit says Navy sonar puts marine animals at risk

A lawsuit against the Navy alleges sonar and explosives testing can harm blue whales, like the one pictured above.
A lawsuit against the Navy alleges sonar and explosives testing can harm blue whales, like the one pictured above.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit on Monday morning against the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service over a permit allowing the Navy  to increase use of sonar and explosives in training activities off the coasts of Hawaii and Southern California.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for managing and protecting marine resources, approved the Navy’s request in December. The permit will be good for the next five years.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to kill or harass marine mammals, but the government, including the Navy, may be granted exemptions in certain instances. The NRDC’s filing states that the Navy’s training exercises will have, “unprecedented impacts on marine mammals: 155 deaths, more than 2,000 permanent injuries, and nearly 9.6 million instances of temporary hearing loss and significant disruptions of vital behaviors.”

An NRDC official said that the National Marine Fisheries Service inadequately addressed the impact that the Navy’s request would have on marine life.

“The increase in the amount of harm that they’ve projected this time around is just huge,” said Zak Smith, an attorney with NRDC. “The agency charged with protecting [marine mammals] is just rolling over.”

The authorization mandates that the Navy follow several measures designed to minimize harmful effects on wildlife, including shutting down sonar and stopping detonations when marine mammals are seen within "mitigation zones" around vessels.

In a press release, the NRDC said that it also wants the Navy to institute additional safety practices, including avoiding exercises in habitats for endangered species and prohibiting testing at night, when it’s more difficult to detect marine mammals.

“This is the most powerful navy on the planet, [with] a rich history of doing incredible things. And you’re telling me that you can’t figure out a way to effectively train and protect marine mammals,” Smith said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Smith said that he hopes a decision from the U.S. District Court in San Francisco will come by fall. This is the 10th time that the NRDC has sued the Navy for its use of sonar or explosives in training and testing exercises.

A spokesman for the Navy said the military branch had not seen the most recent case filing. He said that while the Navy is committed to protecting marine life, it is also dedicated to national security.

“If the Navy cannot realistically train at sea and test our equipment, sailors' lives and our ability to defend against serious threats will be at risk,” The Navy's Kenneth Hess said. 

A spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service said the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.