Lawsuit Lands US Navy's Potentially Harmful Sonar Training Exercises
January 28, 2014

Lawsuit Lands US Navy’s Potentially Harmful Sonar Training Exercises

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

In December, the National Marine Fisheries Service authorized Navy sonar training exercises off the coasts of Hawaii and California through 2018. This authorization came despite admittance by the Navy that the work will kill up to 155 marine mammals, cause more than 2,000 lasting injuries and generate approximately 9.6 million instances of temporary hearing loss – as well as disruptions of natural activities.

On Monday, groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council made an attempt to prevent these exercises by filing a federal lawsuit against both the fisheries agency and the Navy.

The suit argues that the federal government agency unlawfully granted the Navy authorization to cause harm to over 35 species of whales and dolphins. The NRDC also said beaked whales, a mysterious deep-diving species, and endangered blue whales would be significantly harmed by the warfare exercises that are slated to include about 60,000 hours of sonar transmissions and detonation of over 250,000 explosives.

"This is an unprecedented level of harm," Zak Smith, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Los Angeles Times. "In order to authorize these impacts on marine mammals, the service had to turn its back on the best available science."

The lawsuit accused the federal agencies of violating the Underwater Mammal Security Act when it declared that the training exercises will have a negligible effect on marine mammals. It also questioned the Navy's determination that the training program is consistent with California's Coast Management Program, despite a unanimous repudiation of that conclusion by the California Coastal Commission.

In response to criticism, the Navy and fisheries service said they have established sensible and reasonably efficient safety precautions to protect sea mammals – including designated lookouts and lowering the power of sonar or turning it off when whales are spotted.

Monday’s lawsuit was filed in US District Court in San Francisco by the NRDC on behalf of five environmental organizations. Another similar suit was filed last week in Hawaii by Earthjustice on a behalf of five other organizations.

History may not be on the side of these environmental groups as in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled the country's protection outweighed the necessity to safeguard marine mammals from sonar – removing limits on training being conducted off the California coast at the time.

"The Supreme Court case involved 170,000 harms to marine mammals over the course of two years," Smith said in reference to that 2008 decision. "What's changed is the far greater scale of harms during upcoming exercises, and new studies proving the link between exposure to sonar and injury to marine mammals."

Marine mammals have been found to be particularly sensitive to acoustic disturbances because they rely on hearing to converse, hunt and avoid predators. Published research has shown that exposure to sonar can cause blue whales and beaked whales to take flight from foraging grounds, reducing the fitness and health of the population.

The lawsuit filed on Monday called for the training authorization be annulled and reconsidered, the Navy be forced to follow with state and federal environmental regulations, and for training be confined in specific time and places that might cause less damage to aquatic life.