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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
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Ninth Circuit Upholds Navy Sonar Restrictions Protecting Whales

PASADENA (CN) - After hearing arguments over the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises off the coast of southern California, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld a modified injunction requiring the Navy to abide by extensive safeguards aimed at protecting whales, dolphins and other marine mammals from the harmful sonic blasts.

The 108-page ruling late Friday rejects the Bush administration's attempt to exempt Navy sonar training from environmental laws on the grounds that these training missions are "essential to national security" and are in the "paramount interest of the United States."

But the record of evidence - much of it submitted by the Navy itself - does not support the alleged "emergency circumstances" warranting exemption, the appeals court ruled. Judge Fletcher wrote that the challenged mitigation measures "will not likely compromise the Navy's ability to effectively train and certify its west-coast strike groups."

The court stressed the importance of balancing the protection of marine life with national security. In a concurrent order, the court slightly modified the mitigation measures, giving the Navy a 30-day reprieve from some of the stricter safeguards until it finished the remaining eight of 14 exercises scheduled this month.

The circuit said the Navy may continue using mid-frequency active sonar (MFA sonar) within 2,200 yards of a marine mammal only if the sonar is being used at a "critical point in the exercise." It must then decrease the intensity of the sonar level the closer the marine mammal is to the sonar source: it must reduce the sonar level by six decibels when the mammal is within 1,000 meters of the sonar source; by 10 decibels within 500 meters; and suspend use of MFA sonar altogether when the mammal is within 200 meters.

The admiral or commander overseeing the training exercise has the discretion to determine what constitutes a "critical point in the exercise," the order states.

More than 37 species of marine mammals are found in the biologically diverse waters off the coast of southern California. Nine of those species are listed as endangered or threatened, including the blue whale, fin whale, sperm whale, sea otter and Stellar sea lion. Exposure to "very high" acoustic energy levels may impair marine mammals' sense of sight, balance, hearing and direction, and may injure their lungs, intestines and other internal organs.

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