Supreme Court Hears Navy Sonar Case

Decision could affect whales in Hawai`i case as well as California


Koalani Kaulukukui, Earthjustice: Mid-Pacific office, (808) 599-2436

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Winter v NRDC today. The transcript of the hearing is here.

That case looks at the Navy’s use of sonar off the southern California coast.

In Hawai`i, a similar case working its way through the courts is on hold until the Supreme Court rules in the California case. Earthjustice represents five environmental organizations in that case, including Ocean Mammal Institute, Animal Welfare Institute, KAHEA, Center for Biological Diversity, and Surfrider Foundation’s Kaua`i Chapter.

The Hawai`i suit challenged twelve Undersea Warfare Exercises scheduled between January 2007 and January 2009. During the exercises, multiple surface ships, aircraft, and submarines blast high-intensity, mid-frequency active sonar into Hawai`i’s near- and off-shore waters. Some of the exercises occur within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and in prime beaked whale habitat.

The sound energy produced by sonar has been linked to marine mammal strandings and deaths around the world, including the embayment of over 150 melon-headed whales in Kaua`i in 2004. Sonar has not been ruled out as a factor in the death of a Cuvier’s beaked whale that stranded and later died on Moloka`i during the recent 2008 multi-national Rim of the Pacific exercise in July. Two pygmy sperm whales (one carrying a full-term fetus) also washed up on different Maui county beaches following two separate Undersea Warfare Exercises in April 2007.

In February 2008, Hawai`i federal district Judge David A. Ezra agreed with the environmental groups that the Navy likely violated federal law, including the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Judge Ezra issued a preliminary injunction that enjoined the Navy from carrying out its Undersea Warfare Exercises in Hawai`i’s waters without adhering to additional mitigation measures to protect marine mammals. That injunction stands today.

Last month, the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco refused to vacate Judge Ezra’s injunction. The case is now back in Judge Ezra’s court, to decide whether the injunction should be lifted based on the Navy’s new environmental impact statement, which covers all of the Navy’s activities in the Hawai`i Range Complex, including Undersea Warfare Exercises. Judge Ezra has stayed the case pending the United States Supreme Court’s decision in the California case.

Watch and listen to actual sonar activities in whale habitat.

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