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Protecting Marine Mammals from Navy Sonar in the Pacific Northwest

A U.S. Navy vessel, with a research ship and pod of orcas in the foreground.

A U.S. Navy vessel encounters a research ship and pod of orcas. The shrill, repetitive whistle produced by sonar harms marine mammals.

Photo provided by Center for Whale Research

Case Overview

Earthjustice, representing InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the San Juans, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and People For Puget Sound, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California challenging NMFS’s approval of the Navy’s training activities in its Northwest Training Range Complex. The lawsuit calls on NMFS to mitigate anticipated harm to marine mammals and biologically critical areas within the training range that stretches from Northern California to the Canadian border.

The Navy uses a vast area of the West Coast for training activities including anti-submarine warfare exercises involving tracking aircraft and sonar; surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises; air-to-surface bombing exercises; sink exercises; and extensive testing for several new weapons systems.

In late 2010, NMFS gave the Navy a permit for five years of expanded naval activity that will harm or “take” marine mammals and other sealife. The permit allows the Navy to conduct increased training exercises that can harm marine mammals and disrupt their migration, nursing, breeding, or feeding, primarily as a result of harassment through exposure to the use of sonar.

The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in, among other places, the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands, and Spain. In 2004, during war games near Hawaiʻi, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass beaching of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay. In 2003, the USS Shoup, operating in Washington’s Haro Strait, exposed a group of endangered Southern Resident killer whales to mid-frequency sonar, causing the animals to stop feeding and attempt to flee the sound.

The Navy’s mitigation plan for sonar use relies primarily on visual detection of whales or other marine mammals by so-called “watch-standers” with binoculars on the decks of ships. If mammals are seen in the vicinity of an exercise, the Navy is to cease sonar use.

The litigation is not intended to halt the Navy’s exercises, but asks the Court to require NMFS to reassess the permits using the latest science and to order the Navy to stay out of biologically critical areas at least at certain times of the year.

Case ID

2235

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Case Updates

December 12, 2013 | Blog Post

Navy Sonar Harms Marine Mammals

Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas has set a deadline of August 1, 2014 for the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop a plan that will ensure Navy sonar and live-fire training doesn’t violate the Endangered Species Act.

November 26, 2013 | Legal Document

U.S. District Court Ruling on Navy Sonar

The National Marine Fisheries Service has eight months to issue a new plan to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises ranging from Northern California to Canada.

November 7, 2013 | In the News: CBS News

Navy Ordered to Perform Reassessment of Increased Sonar Use

The U.S Navy’s expansion of sonar training along the West Coast will be reassessed after U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas found that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to consider the long-term effects these exercises will have on whales and other marine life. Environmentalists are advocating for more protections against sonar activity.

September 26, 2013 | Legal Document

District Court Decision

A federal court has ruled that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) failed to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.