Federal Court Blocks Use of High-Intensity Naval Sonar During Exercises off Southern California in Rich Marine Mammal Habitat

Court Finds “Near Certainty” of Harm to Whales Near Channel Islands and Says Proposed Mitigation Measures Were Ineffectual

LOS ANGELES (August 6, 2007) – The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California today enjoined the U.S. Navy from using mid-frequency active sonar during 14 naval training exercises planned for the rich biological waters off Southern California through 2009. Mid-frequency active (or MFA) sonar is used by the Navy to detect submarines but has caused whale strandings and other harm to marine animals around the world. The court concluded that the injunction was necessary given the “near certainty” that use of MFA sonar during the planned SOCAL exercises will cause irreparable harm to the environment. 
The court’s order – a preliminary injunction issued to prevent harm while the lawsuit is pending -- was requested by a coalition of environmental and animal protection groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a lawsuit filed in late March alleging that unmitigated use of high-intensity sonar during the exercises violates federal environmental laws. The naval exercises included plans to blast high-intensity sonar sound waves repeatedly into some of the richest marine habitat in the country, including waters around the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
“The court’s order confirms that, during sonar testing and training, the Navy can and must protect whales and other marine life in the extraordinarily rich waters off our Southern California coast,” said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC. “The Navy’s rejection of common sense protective measures -- even measures requested by the California Coastal Commission -- is illegal, unacceptable, and completely unnecessary.”
The court found a probability that the Navy had not complied with three federal environmental and administrative laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The judge noted in her tentative written opinion that the Navy’s own analyses concluded that the Southern California exercises “will cause widespread harm to nearly thirty species of marine mammals, including five species of endangered whales, and may cause permanent injury and death.” The court characterized the Navy’s proposed mitigation measures as “woefully inadequate and ineffectual.”
The mid-frequency sonar systems the Navy planned to use generate underwater sound loud enough to blast thousands of square miles of ocean with dangerous levels of noise pollution. Among the rich marine life found in the target area are the five endangered species of whales, including a globally important population of blue whales, the largest animal ever to live on earth, and as many as seven individual species of beaked whales, which are known for their particular vulnerability to underwater sound.
Among simple mitigation measures that the Navy refuses are: adopting larger safety zones to protect marine mammals close to sonar ships; avoiding key whale habitat; seasonally avoiding the grey whale migratory routes; monitoring for marine mammals thirty minutes before training begins; and reducing sonar power during times of low visibility, when whales are hard to spot. These measures were urged on the Navy earlier this year by the California Coastal Commission, which found them necessary to bring the Navy’s exercises into compliance with California’s coastal laws. The State of California has also filed a case in this same court, challenging the Navy’s refusal to implement these and other protective measures.
Last year, with ships of several nations off Hawaii poised to begin one of the Navy's largest international training exercises, a federal court in Los Angeles temporarily halted the use of mid-frequency sonar. The Navy was allowed to proceed with the exercises only when it agreed to take significant, common-sense measures to protect whales and other marine species, such as staying away from the newly designated Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.
“Once again, a federal court has told the Navy that it cannot ignore basic environmental laws merely for convenience,” said Greg Fayer, a litigator at the Los Angeles law firm of Irell & Manella, co-counsel with NRDC in the lawsuit. “With simple precautions, the Navy can train effectively without endangering the majestic creatures that share our oceans.”
NRDC was joined in the lawsuit over the SOCAL sonar exercises by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cetacean Society International, League for Coastal Protection, Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau.
The final written opinion of the court is expected imminently.