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Groups Fight Navy to Defend Whales

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Navy's plan to deploy a global sonar system to broadcast powerful waves through 75 percent of the world's oceans will harm thousands of endangered marine mammals, environmental groups claim in court.

In their federal complaint, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Humane Society, Jean-Michel Cousteau and others claim the National Marine Fisheries Service approved the Navy's 5-year plan to lower 18 loudspeakers several hundred feet into the ocean without considering the serious injuries it will inflict upon blue whales, humpback whales and other marine mammals.

"The approval comes in the face of evidence that LFA [Low Frequency Active Sonar] creates a risk of widespread injury and disturbance to countless marine species and their habitat, through impacts that range from significant disruptions in critical behaviors like breeding, nursing, and foraging, to physical effects such as hearing loss, stranding, and death, and despite acknowledgment by NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association] that identifying and protecting important marine mammal habitat is the most effective measure available to mitigate the effect of LFA and other high-intensity noise on marine mammals," their complaint states.

"The Navy agrees that high-intensity military sonar can injure and kill whales, dolphins and other marine life, yet it is seeking to use low-frequency active sonar in 70 to 75 percent of the world's oceans. Knowing the extreme disturbance, possibly leading to death, this technology may cause species living in our oceans, this is too great a risk to take without analyzing and designating sufficient areas of the oceans that will be off-limits to peacetime sonar, " NRDC attorney Zak Smith said in a statement.

"The Navy has been using this potentially lethal technology for years in small, discrete portions of the Pacific Ocean, knowing that it harms marine mammals. It now seeks to expand dangerous sonar to three-quarters of the world's oceans, while identifying less than two dozen small areas that deserve protection."

The agency's new 5-year final rule on the Navy plan fails to mention a basis for estimating the number of animals that will be killed at its training sites, or to include alternatives that would restrict the sites to areas that would reduce risk to marine life, the complaint states.

"Defendant's violations of law are all the more egregious given the fact that this is their third bite at the apple," the groups say, citing two earlier attempts by the Navy to increase sonar training exercises, which were blocked by injunctions in 2003 and 2008.

While the National Marine Fisheries Service claims its 2012 final rule complies with the court's rulings, the environmental groups say it "fails to respond to concerns previously identified by the court, most pointedly in their inadequate consideration of mitigation measures necessary and appropriate to protect marine life."

The NRDC's lawsuit follows a similar action filed in January by the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, also challenging the Navy's expansion of sonar exercises.

The plaintiffs want the Navy's plan enjoined as a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

They are represented by Barbara Chishol with Altshuler Berzon in San Francisco and Joel Reynolds and Zak Smith of the National Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica.

Co-plaintiffs include the Cetacean Society International, the League for Coastal Protection, the Ocean Futures Society, and Michael Stocker, a bioacoustician.

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