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
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