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A Win for Nature: Fed Court Strikes Navy Sonar Program

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on July 19, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Nature's lawyers won a victory for marine life last week. The Natural Resources Defense Counsel and other activists had challenged a U.S. Navy sonar detection program that places loudspeakers in the ocean, creating walls of sound that travel hundreds of miles and have been found to harm marine mammals.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the ocean's advocates, saying that the Navy did not do enough to protect marine life. The sonar blasts reportedly deafen mammals, drive them from breeding grounds, and impede their ability to navigate, communicate, and catch prey. The court found that the government must do more to protect the marine mammals, and not just in waters near the United States.

Wall of Sound

In 2012 the National Marine Fisheries Service approved a Navy plan to place 18 deepwater speakers in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, plus the Mediterranean Sea, over the course of five years. Sonar is used to detect submarines by generating slow-rolling sound waves which can travel very far and stay super loud throughout the journey.

The waves of noise reportedly travel hundreds of miles and can retain a deafening intensity hundreds of miles from their source. Scientific American has written, "These rolling walls of noise are no doubt too much for some marine wildlife. While little is known about any direct physiological effects of sonar waves on marine species, evidence shows that whales will swim hundreds of miles, rapidly change their depth (sometime leading to bleeding from the eyes and ears), and even beach themselves to get away from the sounds of sonar."

Challenging the Navy

Environmentalist groups challenged the sonar use in federal court in San Francisco, arguing that the level of sound emissions approved in the sonar program violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which defines marine mammals as sea otters, whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions and protects these creatures from "takings." The activists challenged the extent of protection that the mammals were receiving, as well as the tendency toward finding protected zones only in oceans close to home. The court found that to the extent that marine life was protected, these protected zones showed a "bias toward U.S. Waters."

Judge Ronald Gould, writing for a three-judge appellate panel, wrote, "The result is that a meaningful proportion of the world's marine mammal habitat is under-protected." The government was required to ensure that in peacetime the program could have "the least practicable adverse impact on marine mammals." The court found that mitigation measures were not given enough consideration and set out standards for future renewals of the program.

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