Science

U.S. navy sued over possible sonar impact on whales

Conservationists and Native American tribes are suing over the U.S. navy's expanded use of sonar in training exercises off the country's west coast, saying the noise can harass and kill whales and other marine life.

Environmental law firm files suit after increased training exercises off west coast

Environmental groups are filing a lawsuit against the U.S. navy for increased use of sonar during training exercises. (Reed Saxon/ Associated Press)

Conservationists and Native American tribes are suing over the U.S. navy's expanded use of sonar in training exercises off the country's west coast, saying the noise can harass and kill whales and other marine life.

In a lawsuit being filed Thursday by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defence Council and other groups claim the National Marine Fisheries Service was wrong to approve the navy's plan for the expanded training.

"Nobody's saying they shouldn't train."—Kristen Boyles, attorney with Earthjustice

They said regulators should have considered the effects repeated sonar use can have on those species over many years and should have restricted where the navy could conduct sonar and other loud activities to protect orcas, humpbacks and other whales, as well as seals, sea lions and dolphins.

Instead, the navy is required to look around and see if sea mammals are present before they conduct the training.

Balance training needs with environmental stewardship, says lawyer

Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, said it's the job of the fisheries service to balance the needs of the navy with measures to protect marine life.

 

 "But it can't be possible that it's no-holds-barred."

In 2010, the fisheries service approved the navy's five-year plan for operations in the Northwest Training Range Complex, an area roughly the size of California that stretches from the waters off California to the Canadian border. The navy has conducted exercises there for 60 years but in recent years proposed increased weapons testing and submarine training.

The environmental groups want the permit granted to the navy to be invalidated. They are asking the court to order the fisheries service to study the long-term effects of sonar on marine mammals, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

Regulators determined that while sonar use by navies has been associated with the deaths of whales around the world, including the beaching of 37 whales on North Carolina's Outer Banks in 2005, there was little chance of that happening in the U.S. Northwest. The short duration of the sonar use, typically 90 minutes at a time by a single surface vessel, and reduced intensity would help prevent whale deaths, they said. Regulators required the navy to shut down sonar operations if whales, sea lions, dolphins or other marine mammals were spotted nearby.

Lawsuit says sonar can impact marine life and habitat

The lawsuit, being filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claims that the navy's sonar use in the Northwest might be strong enough to kill the animals outright. But even if it doesn't, it claims, the repeated use of sonar in certain critical habitats, such as breeding or feeding grounds, over many years could drive those species away, making it more difficult for them to eat or reproduce. The fisheries service should have ordered the navy to keep out of such areas, at least seasonally, the environmental groups said.

A spokeswoman for the navy declined to comment on Wednesday, saying she had not seen the lawsuit, and the fisheries service did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

The plaintiffs include People for Puget Sound, a Seattle-based non-profit, and the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, which represents 10 Northern California American Indian tribes.

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