Policy News

Navy Agrees to Limit Sonar Activities to Protect Whales

In September, the blue whale got a break from Navy sonar training and testing when, the first time ever, the U.S. Navy agreed to put vast swaths of important habitat for numerous marine mammals off limits to dangerous mid-frequency sonar training and testing and the use of powerful explosives.


The lawsuit which brought about the agreement contended that “high-intensity, mid-frequency sounds wreak havoc on the aquatic environment, causing serious impacts to marine mammals, such as strandings, habitat avoidance and abandonment, and even death.”

According to Earthjustice, the Navy’s own five-year Pacific weapons testing and training plan estimated that “whales, dolphins and other marine mammals would be harmed nearly 9.6 million times during high-intensity sonar exercises and underwater detonations. These harmful impacts include millions of instances of temporary hearing loss and significant disruptions in vital behaviors, such as rearing young, as well as more than 150 deaths.”

In 2013, Earthjustice sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for approving the Navy’s five-year plan, alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Two years later, in March 2015, a federal judge agreed with Earthjustice and found that the Navy and the fisheries service violated the law. In September 2015, the Navy agreed to create safe havens to protect marine species.

“If a whale or dolphin can’t hear, it can’t survive,“ said David Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney who brought the initial challenge to the Navy’s latest round of training and testing on behalf of several groups. “By agreeing to this settlement, the Navy acknowledges that it doesn’t need to train in every square inch of the ocean and that it can take reasonable steps to reduce the deadly toll of its activities.”

Until it expires in late 2018, the agreement will protect habitat for the most vulnerable marine mammal populations, including endangered blue whales, for which waters off the coast of Southern California are a globally important feeding area. It will also protect numerous small, resident whale and dolphin populations off Hawai‘i, for whom the islands are literally their only home.

For more on this settlement, including links to the original court settlement, click here

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