Photo: Rafael Figueroa
On Friday, a federal appeals court granted what environmentalists say are long overdue protections for whales, dolphins and porpoises, against the Navy’s use of sonar. Navy sonar can potentially interfere with marine mammals’ breeding habits, migration patterns and their abilities to hear and communicate.
Despite the Navy’s repeated attempts to increase sonar usage, the decision to favor aquatic life over military routines emerged from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California, which ruled that the use of low-frequency naval training was in direct violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Such routines have purportedly caused over 2,000 serious injuries to dolphins, seals and other marine mammals in just the last year alone.
“The Navy can meet its training and testing needs and, at the same time, provide significant protections to whales and dolphins by limiting the use of sonar and explosives in vital habitat,” says Ocean Mammal Institute President Marsha Green.
Last summer, a half dozen whales washed ashore on California’s northern beaches exhibiting signs of trauma, muscle hemorrhaging and even brain-bleeding – all of which are consistent in sonar-related deaths.
“Even when stranding does not result, military sonar can cause hearing loss and internal injuries to marine mammals that results in death, even if the animal does not end up on shore,” explains Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “Like so many things in life, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. The most serious harm to marine mammals occurs when sonar use is in close proximity to animals… Thus, the focus of our efforts has been on minimizing and, where possible, eliminating, sonar use in areas identified as biologically important to marine mammals.”
Thousands of sonar devices decorate our oceans today, and are used in the simulation of training exercises. According to a recent report titled Noise Pollution and Whale Behavior:
“Whale sonar allows the animals to find food, safely travel along irregular coastlines, and migrate to and from breeding and feeding grounds. Some whales use bursts of loud noise to drive and confuse their prey… These activities are becoming more and more difficult as manmade noise in the sea has increased dramatically. Ship traffic, oil and gas exploration, scientific research activities, and the use of military sonar and communications equipment have caused an increase in ambient marine noise of two orders of magnitude in the last 60 years.”
The Friday ruling appeals a 2008 Supreme Court decision that halted attempts to heighten marine mammal protection by respectively decreasing naval activity.
“We do not discount the importance of plaintiffs’ ecological, scientific, and recreational interests in marine mammals,” explained Chief Justice John Roberts. “Those interests, however, are plainly outweighed by the Navy’s need to conduct realistic training exercises to ensure that it is able to neutralize the threat posed by enemy submarines.”
But environmental groups got their way last year when a lawsuit enforcing limitations on sonar exercises and explosives testing in biologically diverse areas took effect in Southern California and the Hawaiian Islands. Such exercises caused over 150 animal deaths in 2015, and the recent ruling suggests a natural shift in the nation’s courts, one that may lead to even further protection of our oceans’ creatures.