The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that military training trumps protecting whales in a dispute over the U.S. Navy's use of sonar in submarine-hunting exercises off the coast of southern California.
Writing for the majority in the court's first decision of the term, Chief Justice John Roberts said the worst that would happen, in terms of whale conservation, is that an unknown number of the marine mammals would be harmed.
"In contrast, forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet," the chief justice wrote. He said the overall public interest tips strongly in favor of the Navy.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental organizations had sued the Navy, winning restrictions in lower federal courts on sonar use.
Dolphins, whales, and sea lions are among the 37 species of marine mammals in the area.
The Bush administration argued that there is little evidence of harm to marine life in more than 40 years of exercises.
Joining Roberts's opinion were Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.
The court did not deal with the merits of the claims put forward by the environmental groups. The justices said, rather, that federal courts had abused their discretion by ordering the Navy to limit sonar use in some cases and to turn it off altogether in others.
Justice John Paul Stevens did not join the majority opinion, but he said the lower courts had failed to adequately explain the basis for siding with the environmental groups. Justice Stephen Breyer would have allowed some restrictions to remain.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented, saying the prospect of harm to the whales was sufficient to justify limits on sonar use.
In complicated sonar exercises, ships, subs, and aircraft must train together to track modern diesel-electric submarines, which can operate almost silently. (Related: "Acoustic 'Invisibility' Cloaks Possible, Study Says" [January 23, 2008].)
The Navy says the area off southern California is the only location on the West Coast that is relatively close to land, air, and sea bases as well as amphibious landing areas.
NRDC said the ruling is a narrow one.
"I don't think it establishes a bright-line rule," said Joel Reynolds, director of NRDC's marine mammal protection program. "The court acknowledged that environmental interests are important, but in this case that the interest in training was greater, was more significant than, interest in the environment."
The Navy challenged restrictions that included shutting down sonar when a marine mammal is spotted within 2,200 yards (2,011 meters) of a vessel.
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