Suit Would Curb Navy Sonar for Marine Life

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The U.S. Navy's plan to increase sonar exercises in the next five years will harm marine mammals and violates the Endangered Species Act, environmental groups say.
     Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council joined the Center for Biological Diversity and four other groups in a federal complaint against National Marine Fisheries Service, which approved the Navy's plan. The suit also names the service's acting assistant administrator, Samuel Rauch, and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who is the administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
     For decades, the National Marine Fisheries Service has let the Navy conduct annual training exercises in an area of the Pacific Ocean that stretches from California's Mendocino Coast to Washington's Puget Sound. But the Navy's new permit requests have sought to increase the scope of these activities in a way that environmentalists claim would harm sea life.
     In November 2010, regulators gave the Nave a five-year permit for these exercises, which will allegedly "harass marine mammals hundreds of thousands of times, disrupting their migration, breathing, nursing, feeding, and sheltering, and cause temporary hearing loss in species that depend on sound for their reproduction and survival."
     This authorization came without a proper assessment of the risks to marine mammals, the groups said. The service and the Navy estimate that the use of sonar during the five year plan will result in the death or injury of 650,000 marine animals, referred to as "takes" in the regulations.
     The complaint links nine different marine mammals were beached because of mid-frequency active sonar naval exercises since 1996, resulting in the death of dozens of animals. Necropsies on the dead mammals showed "hemorrhaging in and around the ears, and other tissues related to sound conduction or production ... had minor to severe damage," according to the complaint.
     Other animals showed organ damage and internal injuries similar to decompression sickness, the diving condition humans know as the bends. The complaint says sonar may have startled the marine mammals into ascending too quickly.
     Naval activities also harm the cultural subsistence practices of native tribes, according to the lawsuit.
     The Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council says it has been left in the dark even though it is entitled to government-to-government consultation and has requested to meet with the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service to discuss mitigation and other alternatives to protect the animals. "The Sinkyone Council has not received a letter, phone call or any other communication from the Navy ... nor has NMFS communicated with the council regarding tribal consultation," according to the complaint.
     Weighing against the organization's case, there is Supreme Court precedent favoring the Navy's use of sonar on the California coast. In its 2008 decision of Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a close majority ruled that overall public interest tips "strongly in favor of the Navy" as national security trumps marine animal safety.
     Against this backdrop today, the environmentalists claim that the five-year permit, will result in the "take" of 596,000 harbor porpoises alone, constitutes a violation of both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
     The plaintiffs are represented by Kristen Boyles and Stephen Mashuda of Earthjustice in Seattle and Stephen Smith of the National Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica, Calif.