Federal Court Rules Against The US Navy, In Favor Of Whales

Dolphins escort HMS Ocean
HMS Ocean en route to Iraq in 2003 is joined by dolphins.

The US Navy has wrongly used sonar at levels that could harm whales, seals, dolphins and walruses and disrupt their feeding and mating, ruled a federal appeals court in San Francisco.

In a 3-0 decision the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a 2012 lower court decision that allowed the Navy to use low-frequency sonar for “training, testing and routine operations” in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.

Under the 2012 ruling the National Marine Fisheries Service required the Navy to reduce peactime sonar levels in areas known to have high populations of marine mammals (or if a marine mammal was detected near the ship) but failed to restrict sonar use in areas where their presence was uncertain. Those included some offshore zones that had been protected in the past and others listed by scientists as likely habitats, the court said.

Environmental groups including The Natural Resources Defense Council, filed a lawsuit in San Francisco in 2012, arguing that the National Marine Fisheries Service requirements failed to meet a section of the Marine Mammal Protection Act requiring peacetime oceanic programs to have “the least practicable adverse impact on marine mammals.”

The appellate court ruled 3-0 in favor of the environmental groups concluding that the fisheries service “did not give adequate protection to areas of the world’s oceans flagged by its own experts as biologically important.”