Order Lets Stand Court Decision Limiting Peacetime Deployment of Naval Sonar System That Threatens Endangered Marine Mammals and Fish
LOS ANGELES (July 26, 2006) -- In a unanimous order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit this week dismissed the Bush Administration's request to overturn an October 2003 lower court decision limiting the peacetime deployment of a low-frequency military sonar system that can blast vast areas of the oceans with dangerous levels of underwater noise.
The lawsuit, filed in 2002 by a coalition of conservation organizations led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), challenged the Navy's deployment of the new sonar system in over 75 percent of the world's oceans, citing scientific evidence that the sonar is a threat to entire populations of whales, dolphins, seals and other marine animals.
"This court order protects marine life around the world from dangerous, even lethal, blasts of low-frequency active sonar on a staggering geographic scale," said Joel Reynolds, Senior Attorney and Director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC. "The Navy can continue to train with this sonar system in a limited area, but it may not disrupt marine mammal habitat worldwide simply for practice."
Restrictions on the Navy's use of the technology, known as Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active sonar (SURTASS LFA), do not apply during war or conditions of heightened threat.
LFA sonar relies on extremely loud, low-frequency sound to detect submarines at great distances. According to the Navy's own studies, the LFA system generates noise so intense that dangerous levels of sound reach more than 300 miles away. Scientists testified that, under certain oceanic conditions, sound from a single LFA system can be detected across entire oceans.
The decision by the lower federal court, issued in 2003, found that the permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service allowing deployment of the sonar system around the world violated a number of federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
"The sole focus of the government's appeal was to weaken legal protections for endangered whales and fish even though the Navy can train effectively with those protections in place," said Andrew Wetzler, the NRDC senior attorney who argued the case for the environmental plaintiffs.
The terms of the permanent injunction entered by the lower court were settled in a negotiated agreement among the parties to the lawsuit, but the Bush administration nevertheless appealed the court's decision. Now, with the dismissal of the appeal, the protections required by that agreement remain fully in place. Under the terms of the 2003 agreement, the Navy must restrict testing and training with the new sonar system to limited areas in the western North Pacific Ocean and adhere to other protective measures, including seasonal and coastal exclusions that conservationists believe will protect critical whale migrations and habitat. None of the limitations applies during war or heightened threat conditions.
The ruling comes less than a month after NRDC and other plaintiffs won a temporary restraining order against the Navy's use of a different kind of sonar, high-intensity mid-frequency sonar, during the eight-nation Rim of the Pacific war games off of Hawaii. NRDC negotiated a settlement with the Navy that allowed it to proceed with the sonar portion of the exercise once additional protections were in place to limit needless harm to marine mammals (see the press release).