Court Finds Feds Violated Endangered Species Act in Pacific Northwest When Authorizing Navy Sonar

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A federal court has found that the government violated the Endangered Species Act when permitting Navy training activities in the Northwest Training Range Complex—a California-sized training area extending from Washington’s border with Canada down to Northern California.  The decision requires the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to reassess its permits to ensure that the Navy’s training complies with the Endangered Species Act’s requirements for the area’s endangered Southern Resident killer whales, blue whales, humpback whales, fin whales, sei whales, sperm whales, and Steller sea lions.  The government can no longer ignore science—that is developing at a brisk pace—showing that the Navy’s use of sonar is more harmful to whales and dolphins than previously thought.

The Navy’s use of mid-frequency active sonar can kill, injure, and disturb marine mammals.  The Navy and NMFS accept this fact, projecting 650,000 instances of injury and harassment to whales, dolphins, and porpoises over five years of activities in the Pacific Northwest.  Sonar has caused or been associated with multiple stranding events of whales and other marine mammals around the world.  NRDC and other concerned organizations (InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth Friends of the San Juans, and People for Puget Sound) challenged the Fisheries Service’s permitting of the Navy’s activities in the Pacific Northwest in January 2012.  With its ruling yesterday afternoon, the court found that the agency’s approval of the Navy’s activities ignored the best available science showing that marine mammals are far more sensitive to sonar that can cause hearing loss and other injuries.

As we’ve seen over the past decade in permit approvals, the Navy and NMFS have been working overtime to minimize the nature and extent of harm to marine mammals caused by the Navy’s use of sonar—twisting, turning, dodging, and simply ignoring evidence right before them.  Now, the science is catching up and exposing these machinations for what they always were: “ends justify the means” attempts to let the Navy continue with business as usual, unencumbered by any serious obligation to protect whales and dolphins from significant harms.  NRDC and our allies will continue to call on this agency to find ways to minimize harm to marine mammals from the Navy’s training.  This court ruling should remind NMFS that its preeminent obligation is to endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, not to applicants seeking to conduct harmful activities regardless of the consequences.

Photo by NOAA