A federal judge forbade the US Navy on Thursday from using a powerful form of sonar within 12 miles of the California coast and slapped other restrictions on naval war exercises in a ruling that could have repercussions in the Pacific Northwest.
U.S. District Judge Florence Marie-Cooper said noise from the Navy’s midfrequency sonar far outstrips levels at which federal rules require ear protection for humans on the job. Whales’ hearing is extremely sensitive.
“The court is persuaded that the (protection) scheme proposed by the Navy is grossly inadequate to protect marine mammals from debilitating levels of sonar exposure,” Marie-Cooper wrote in her ruling.
The Navy offered to reduce the sonar’s intensity when whales approached within about 1,100 yards and power down further before shutting the sonar off when the creatures got within 200 yards. The judge ordered sonar shut off when marine mammals are within 2,200 yards.
By the Navy’s own estimate, it would harass or harm marine mammals, as prohibited by the Endangered Species Act, about 170,000 times, the judge said. The Navy said the series of 14 exercises would temporarily deafen whales 8,000 times and cause permanent injuries in more than 400 cases.
Environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, brought suit as part of a campaign to rein in sonar use, which they contend violates several federal laws. They had sought a ban on naval exercises out to 25 miles from shore.
The Navy argued that it must train sailors against a new generation of quiet submarines that can’t be detected by traditional “passive” sonar, but are picked up by the midfrequency version.
The service said exercises off Southern California are important because they give sailors training around undersea mountain ranges like those where they might chase subs elsewhere in the world.
“Despite the care the court took in crafting its order, we do not believe it struck the right balance between national security and environmental concerns,” said Jeff Davis, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon.
The judge also required the Navy to watch for marine mammals for an hour before using the sonar, among other conditions.
The restrictions could affect the debate in the Northwest over protecting Puget Sound orcas and other marine mammals.
However, different species are at risk off Southern California. There, beaked whales sometimes disappear underwater for up to an hour. Orcas are usually easier to spot.
Source: Seattle Post Intelligencer (US)