Whales vs. Navy: NOAA May Limit Sonar Tests, but Another Case Heads to Court

By Andrew Moseman | February 1, 2010 5:34 pm


Whales and the U.S. Navy have tangled repeatedly over the past years over charges that the Navy’s sonar exercises disorient or injure whales and other marine mammals. Now, whales in the Pacific appear to have a new champion: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is considering limiting the Navy’s sonar tests in certain marine mammal “hot spots.”

The announcement was made in a letter (pdf) from NOAA head Jane Lubchenco to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. NOAA also called for development of a system for estimating the “comprehensive sound budget for the oceans,” which could help reduce human sources of noise — vessel traffic, sonar and construction activities — that degrade the environment in which sound-sensitive species communicate [Los Angeles Times].

While NOAA’s new investigations into limiting the Navy’s sonar use is good news for whales, it may take years before new rules are issued. And until then, fights will rage on in courts. Back in 2008, a 5-4 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Navy to conduct sonar tests in the Pacific Ocean, despite environmental groups fighting to stop the tests. But that wasn’t the end of litigation over this issue. Last week a consortium of environmental groups sued the Navy in U.S. District Court to stop a sonar project on the other side of the country, in the Atlantic Ocean waters off Florida.

The proposed Undersea Warfare Training Center would cover 500 square nautical miles in an area ideally close to two Navy bases, one in Georgia and another in Florida. However, the range would lie just outside the shallow waters where right whales give birth and nurse their calves each year from mid-November to mid-April [Los Angeles Times]. Right whales are an endangered species numbering only about 350, researchers believe.

“Right whales shouldn’t be subjected to the threats that accompany this range — ship strikes, entanglement and noise disturbance — in the only place in the world where vulnerable females give birth to and care for their calves,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center [Environmental News Service]. The Pentagon didn’t responded to the lawsuit immediately, but the Navy has previously stated it doesn’t believe the project will cause major environmental harm, and that it would halt construction during the whales’ five-month calving season.

The Navy’s own environmental impact statement notes that sonar can harm whales, though scientists don’t completely understand the specifics. But the environmental groups say there’s more to this case than sonar: Ship traffic in the calving grounds is of particular concern since data suggests female right whales are struck more often, possibly because they must spend more time at the surface with their calves which have undeveloped lung capacities [Environmental News Service].

Because of the extra issues besides sonar, and right whales’ status as critically endangered, Wannamaker says this is a different case than the 2008 one that became a Navy victory. In that decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that national security and military training outweighed the concern for the whales in that case, but that they wouldn’t necessarily trump the environmentalists’ arguments in every case.

Related Content:
80beats: Navy 1, Whales 0: Supreme Court Allows Navy’s Sonar Exercises
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: Living World, Technology
MORE ABOUT: military, sonar, whales
  • P. Lee

    As in Watergate, follow the money. For the NGOs and non-profits who are proclaiming to protect the right whale, who pays their bills? You wanna bet in reals, yuan, or rubles? Lawfare at its finest!

  • TRJ

    Allow the Navy to operate their sonar wherever and whenever they want to. But restrict the power output of the sonar to no more than that of the loudest species of whale.

  • Katharine

    I’d rather give up a little national security than f*** up life on Earth.

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word.]

  • http://AEInews.org Jim Cummings

    NOAA appears to be moving toward a sensible middle ground here. While relatively few whales have been stranded by sonar (given how widespread the use of these mid-frequency active sonars are–over 300 ships worldwide), there is a decent chance that many injuries (or deaths) at sea are never seen. Surely, the sound sources being used are extremely grating and acoustically unnatural (ie the physics of the waveforms are very dissimilar to any natural sounds), and so assuming that whales can easily take it at the same volume as whale songs is not justified. For many reasons, “spatio-temporal restrictions” make the most sense, and the Navy has resisted this simple fix with near-religious fervor. The Navy’s regional training ranges encompass nearly the entire east coast of the US, and a vast majority of the west coast as well; yet they insist that every square mile is essential to have access to, year-round, in order to have enough flexibility and variety in underwater topography to effectively train sailors. Setting some biologically-rich areas off limits, in the seasons when they are being used for breeding, etc, is a simple solution that will minimize the chances for danger to whales. The Navy has agreed to suspend construction of the new Undersea Warfare Training Range off Florida during the right whale birthing season; similar restrictions in operations there (which will include many sonar training sessions) also make sense. At the very least, close monitoring of whales during sonar operations would help determine the degree of any behavioral disruptions, which, in this very sensitive population, should be minimized or completely avoided.


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