Court Considers Whales and Sonar - Oceana USA
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October 12, 2008

Court Considers Whales and Sonar

In further noisy ocean news this past week, our nation’s highest court heard oral arguments in the dispute over the Navy’s use of mid-frequency active sonar off the coast. The sonar has been associated with whale injury and beach strandings; meanwhile, the Navy argues that halting or restricting sonar training exercises in any way harms national security. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the plaintiff in the case, many whales that have been beached as a result of sonar have suffered physical trauma, including bleeding around the brain, ears and other tissues. In addition, many have shown symptoms akin to a severe case of “the bends” — the illness that can kill scuba divers who surface quickly from deep water, implying that the whales’ dive patterns are altered. Sonar has also been shown to disrupt feeding and other vital behavior and to cause a wide range of species to panic and flee. The NRDC case is specific to training exercises in the Pacific Ocean and whether the Navy has to be environmentally responsible in its routine trainings by reducing their impacts to whales. Oceana filed a “friend of the court” brief along with Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Animal Legal Defense Fund, and Greenpeace. As Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor at Georgetown, points out in the NY Times article about the case, the odds for NRDC aren’t good; The Supreme Court has heard 15 cases under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the law that NRDC is using in this case, and the plaintiffs have lost all 15. Plus, she said, there are “just not justices on the court for the most part who are out to save the whales.” For evidence, simply look at what they said: Justice Samuel Alito wondered how one judge could ever restrict anything the Navy does, Chief Justice John Roberts said that if the Navy didn’t train with active sonar, another Pearl Harbor-type attack would likely happen, and Justice Stephen Breyer said, “The whole point of the armed forces is to hurt the environment.” Oceana’s take? The case is not about whether or not the Navy should ever use sonar, but about whether the Navy is properly considering the impacts to whales from its routine sonar training exercises. Because sonar has been linked to mass stranding events and whale deaths across the world, the Navy ought to have precautions in place to avoid harming whales when conducting routine training exercises. What do you think?