Activists Sue to Save Whales After Uncle Sam Approves Navy Sonar Training

Under the green-lit plan, more than 2,200 marine mammals could be injured or killed through the end of 2019.

(Photo: George Clerk/Getty Images)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A coalition of animal and environmental organizations filed a lawsuit Monday against the National Marine Fisheries Service asking it to compel the U.S. Navy not to proceed with a five-year plan to increase sonar and live-fire training exercises in a massive swath of the Pacific Ocean.

Announced last Friday but anticipated for months, the naval plan would, according to a study conducted by the Navy, kill or injure up to 2,200 marine mammals. An additional 9.6 million incidences of minor harassment, such as forcing whales and dolphins to stop feeding in a certain area, could also occur.

Through 2019, Navy training and testing in this zone, which covers an area of the eastern Pacific Ocean larger than all 50 U.S. states combined, will emit upwards of 60,000 hours of the military’s “most powerful mid-frequency active sonar,” emit more than 50,000 hours of other frequency sonar, and detonate more than 260,000 explosives, according to a lawsuit—filed Monday in federal court in Honolulu by Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, and other groups—seeking an injunction against the plan.

Barring a court victory by the coalition, the carnage will be considerable.

Under current rules, Navy training and testing in the zone are permitted to kill or injure up to 100 marine mammals over a five-year period. “Now, they’re going to be killing or injuring 2,200 over five years—or 22 times more,” says David Henkin, an Earth Justice staff attorney.

The reason is twofold: Not only is the Navy ramping up the scope and scale of its training, but, Henkin explains, “we also have better science saying lower levels of noise is likely to cause permanent harm, including deafness or injury to internal organs, at radically reduced levels” than previously understood.

The suit alleges that the Navy’s environmental impact statement, which was adopted by NMFS, failed to consider alternatives to the plan, as required by federal law, that could reduce the impact of Navy training and spare millions of marine mammals from undue harassment or injury.

Underwater naval bombs discharge shock waves through the ocean. These blasts are extremely detrimental to marine mammals and their hearing; cetaceans especially depend on sound to locate food and avoid predators.

“Scientists have documented mass strandings; mortal injuries, including lesions and hemorrhaging in vital organs; and behavioral changes in numerous marine mammal species following naval sonar training exercises around the world,” the lawsuit states. Affected behaviors can include migration, nursing, breeding, feeding, and sheltering.

In a similar case in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court backed the Navy, ruling that sonar training off the California coast could be conducted without restrictions to protect marine life.

Activists say neither the Navy nor NMFS considered an alternative that would have carved out a few relatively small parcels within the massive testing zone, rendering them off-limits to training and testing, at least during months when marine mammals are passing through. By restricting certain areas where mammal concentrations are high, much of the damage could be avoided.

Henkin is hopeful for a victory but believes the Navy will fight back hard. “In cases with the military, they don’t really like to consider alternatives,” he says. “They like to do what they want to do.”

For now, opponents want NMFS to follow federal law and require consideration of alternatives that would ease the terrible impact exacted on marine mammal populations. They are counting on the court to force the agency to make the process transparent and accountable to the public, which they claim has not happened.

“Agencies aren’t allowed to go into smoky back rooms and figure out what they are and are not going to do,” Henkin says. “They are supposed to put the process out for comment from experts and the public and then make decisions in light of day, hopefully made with the best information and full disclosure.

“In a democracy, when we don’t like what an agency is doing, we have the opportunity to weigh in and tell them to do something else.”

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