Navy 1, Whales 0: Supreme Court Allows Navy's Sonar Exercises

By Eliza Strickland | November 12, 2008 5:19 pm

Navy submarineThe U.S. Supreme Court has sided with the Navy over the Pacific Ocean’s whales, declaring that the Navy can continue its military exercises using high-powered sonar, despite environmentalists’ arguments that the sonar can harm whales’ ears or cause the panicked animals to beach themselves. The court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that national security needs override these concerns. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, stating: “Of course, military interests do not always trump other considerations, and we have not held that they do. In this case, however, the proper determination of where the public interest lies does not strike us as a close question” [ABC News].

The lawsuit centered on 14 sonar exercises that the Navy wanted to conduct off the coast of Southern California to train seamen in detecting enemy submarines. In his opinion, Roberts stressed the military threat posed by modern subs. “Modern diesel-electric submarines . . . can operate almost silently, making them extremely difficult to detect and track.” America’s potential adversaries have at least 300 of these subs, he said. “The president — the commander in chief — has determined that the training with active sonar is ‘essential to the national security'” [Los Angeles Times].

The Supreme Court’s hearing of the case didn’t delve into the scientific arguments over whether or not sonar harms whales, instead it hinged on whether the federal government had the right to order the training exercises to go ahead without conducting an environmental review. The case began when the Natural Resources Defense Council challenged that assumption, and carried on as a district court judge and then an appeals court agreed that an environmental review was necessary. One judge’s order required the Navy to take a number of steps, including shutting down [high-powered] sonar when marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards [Bloomberg].

Now, the Supreme Court’s decision has overruled those previous judges and lifted the restrictions on sonar use, stating that those federal courts abused their discretion in imposing such conditions on the Navy. However, the ruling may have limited practical impact because the Navy has already completed 13 of its 14 planned exercises. The training is designed to prepare naval strike groups for deployment in the western Pacific and Middle East [Bloomberg].

Related Content:
80beats: Supreme Court Hears the Legal Dispute Between Whales and the Navy
Reality Base: Whales Battle U.S. Military… and (Probably) Lose
80beats: Who Would Win in a (Legal) Fight: A Whale or a Battleship?
DISCOVER: Killing Whales With Sound

Image: Rialyn Rodrigo/U.S. Navy

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Scott

    This is as it should be. I’m all for saving the whales but national security trumps that.

  • andrew

    What doesn’t trump national security in that country?

  • andrew

    Yeah, in a time of war nuke the whales all you like – but just for testing purposes and they’re not willing to look around or move a little for the sake of some other sentient creatures? Dishonorable conduct!

    “Hey, I’m in the Armed Forces and I need to practice shooting my gun. No time to look around to see if I might hit an innocent bystander.”

    I feel a little hungry – or is that feeling in my stomach a growing disgust for humanity?

  • Nik

    So, if this sonar is what I think it is, unless it’s something newer, I’ve worked with it myself while in the US Navy. It’s an awesome tool, and may give us the upper hand. I don’t like the idea of killing whales, or anything else just because it got in our way, but the potential that this type of sonar has would mean that our troops and sailors are safer against (subsurface) threats that don’t play by the same rules we do. When we’re at “war” with other countries, we’re most certainly the ones with the heavier restrictions on what we do to our fellow man.

  • anthony

    Human life or a whales life? Is this really something to be worrying about? I would kill a whale if meant me living… Heck I’d kill two!

  • andrew

    No, it’s Human’s practicing with technology versus the whales life.

    The choice is being mischaracterized (is that a word?).

  • ftfoiinc

    Life is the only measure.

  • Nicola

    The Discover magazine sides with the US Navy, because they only showed pro sonar argument quotes and no anti sonar argument quotes from people within the article. The fact alone that the US Navy wants to skip the steps of scientific overview proves to the public that they know how dangerous the Active Sonar is for the whales and dolphins. Active Sonar tortures them to death in a gruesome form, they bleed to death internally through hemorrhaging in their ear drums and lungs. Whales and dolphins are highly intelligent animals, some of them even surpass the intelligence of the most intelligent humans. The cetaceans also have a higher ethical consciousness. The corporations who manufacture weapons and the Active Sonar profit from selling their technology to the US military, which buys it with our tax money from property tax, which is paying rent on your own property, then the money is not even used for green energy, instead it goes into weapons and destruction of this planet. The corporations own the media and dictate to the military what is being said and how the people in service are trained.


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