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Court Rules Against US Navy Sonar in Victory for Whales


April 6, 2015
Rhea Suh / The Natural Resources Defense Council & Brian Palmer / Earthwire Magazine

Last summer, the US Navy invited 22 countries to participate in exercises across the Pacific Ocean. For whales and dolphins, the event probably felt more like war than war game. The noise from all those ships, submarines, and aircraft is dangerous to cetaceans. In short, noise can be a deadly weapon. The tide may finally be turning in the whales' favor, though. A federal court has ruled that the government has fallen short of its legal obligation to protect marine mammals from naval sonar blasts.

Special to Environmentalists Against Waar

Victory for Whales and Dolphins over Deadly Sonar!
Rhea Suh / Natural Resources Defense Council

(April 2, 2015) -- Yesterday, a federal court, siding with NRDC and our partners -- and whales -- ruled that US Navy training exercises off the coasts of Southern California and Hawaii illegally harm whales, dolphins and countless other marine mammals.

This is a huge victory in our long-running legal battle to end the Navy's senseless attack on whales -- and we have NRDC Members and activists like you to thank.

You stood with us every step of the way, deluging President Obama and even the Navy with hundreds of thousands messages calling for immediate action to protect marine mammals from the Navy's deafening blasts. You also lent your generous financial support to help us fight tooth and nail in court for as long as it took to win.

For years, the Navy has used high-powered sonar and explosives in training exercises around the world that scientists know are harmful to whales, including endangered blue, fin and humpback whales. The Navy itself predicts this sonic bombardment could kill nearly 1,000 whales and deafen or injure thousands more in coming years.

Yesterday's federal court ruling finally set the record straight, deeming that the impact of those underwater assaults were incorrectly assessed as "negligible" -- and are therefore illegal.

But make no mistake: our fight for whale survival is far from over. NRDC will continue fighting -- in and out of court -- to defend whales and make sure the Obama Administration follows through with desperately-needed safeguards protecting marine mammals without compromising our military readiness.

Thank you for making this amazing victory possible. Together, our hard work truly paid off.

Rhea Suh is the President of the NRDC.
The mission of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is to safeguard the Earth: its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.



A Silent Victory
A federal judge stands up to the noisy navy for the sake of marine mammals

Brian Palmer / Earthwire Magazine

(April 1, 2015) -- Last summer, the United States Navy invited 22 countries to participate in exercises across a wide swath of the Pacific Ocean. For whales and dolphins, though, the gathering probably felt more like war than war game.

Training exercises such as the biannual RIMPAC event -- which includes naval ships, submarines, aircraft, and all the noise pollution that comes with them -- are dangerous to cetaceans. In short, noise can be a deadly weapon.

The tide may finally be turning in the whales' favor, though. A federal court ruled yesterday that the government has fallen short of its legal obligation to protect marine mammals from naval exercises in the Pacific.

Active sonar -- bouncing sound waves off physical objects to produce an underwater map -- is a major threat to marine mammals. Whales, for example, are exquisitely attuned to sound. Their ear bones are about the size of a human head, and those ears provide the animal with most of its sensory information in the dark underwater environment.

Whales rely on their sensitive hearing to find food, communicate with peers, and mate. Marine biologists have a saying that sums this up succinctly: A deaf whale is a dead whale.

Deploying active sonar near a whale that's trying to hunt is a bit like shining a spotlight in the eyes of a human in the grocery store. So when sonar-equipped ships enter an area, whales stop feeding. They also stray from migration paths and abandon their traditional habitats.

If a whale is close to the ship when sailors switch on their sonar system, the consequences can be even more dramatic. The blast of sound can damage the whales' lungs and digestive system and cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service must review any activities that could pose a threat to, well, marine mammals.

Its review isn't always satisfactory, though. In December 2013, the NMFS approved the navy's five-year plan for sonar and ordinance use in the Pacific Ocean -- even though the military's own data showed that the activities would inflict harm on marine mammals 9.6 million times. The plan represented a 1,100 percent increase in incidents of harm to whales and dolphins.

The following month, NRDC and a coalition of environmental groups sued the NMFS for failing to fulfill its obligations. (Disclosure.) The organizations demanded that the government develop better safeguards to protect marine mammals from the navy's sonar and explosives, such as declaring certain areas off-limits when whales are feeding or mating.

In response, the navy pointed out that it had set aside a plot of sea -- 3.1 miles in length -- near the Hawaiian coast to protect humpback whales and contended that any additional restrictions would hamper its operational ability. That argument, though, seems a teeny bit unreasonable, considering it claims its exercises need 2.7 million square nautical miles, an area larger than the continental United States.

Federal Judge Susan Oki Mollway rejected the arguments made by the navy and the NMFS -- and the language she used in her opinion verged on mockery in some places. When the NMFS said it would have come to the same conclusion even if it had used superior data, she dismissed this as an "it makes no difference" argument and accused the agency of offering "after-the-fact explanations."

Judge Mollway even waxed nautical in describing her search for a rational justification for the NMFS' decision: "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, every where, Nor any drop to drink.' "

Although the whales won this round, Judge Mollway's ruling is only on the merits, not on the remedies. That's a fancy legal way of saying that the judge hasn't yet decided on what the NMFS must do to bring itself into compliance with the law. That decision is likely months away. Until then, whales can breathe a sigh of relief, presumably out of their blowholes.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

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