US Navy sued over sonar-induced harm to whales

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Ear-splitting sonar used throughout the world’s oceans during routine testing and training by the United States Navy harms marine mammals in violation of bedrock environmental laws, according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles federal court on Wednesday.

Whales, dolphins and other marine animals could be spared excruciating injury and death with common sense precautions, but the Navy refuses to implement them, according to the lawsuit, brought by a coalition of conservation and animal welfare organizations led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The case follows a successful lawsuit by NRDC and other groups, settled two years ago, that blocked the global deployment of the Navy’s new low-frequency active sonar system (LFA), and restricted its use for testing and training to a limited area of the north-western Pacific Ocean. Today’s lawsuit, however, targets training with mid-frequency sonar, the principal system used aboard U.S. naval vessels to locate submarines and underwater objects.

Mid-frequency sonar can emit continuous sound well above 235 decibels, an intensity roughly comparable to a Saturn V rocket at blastoff. Marine mammals have extraordinarily sensitive hearing, and there is no scientific dispute that intense sonar blasts can disturb, injure, and even kill them.

Whales exposed to high-intensity mid-frequency sonar have repeatedly stranded and died on beaches around the world; some bleeding from the eyes and ears, with severe lesions in their organ tissue. At lower intensities, sonar can interfere with the ability of marine mammals to navigate, avoid predators, find food, care for their young, and, ultimately, to survive.

“Military sonar needlessly threatens whole populations of whales and other marine animals,” said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at NRDC. “In violation of our environmental laws, the Navy refuses to take basic precautions that could spare these majestic creatures. Now we’re asking the courts to enforce those laws.”

The association between sonar and whale mortalities is “very convincing and appears overwhelming,” according to a report issued last year by the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission, one of the world’s leading bodies of whale biologists. The committee also noted concerns that stranding reports may underestimate sonar harm because they do not account for whales that die at sea and are never found.

Source: NRDC Press Release