Navy Sonar Bans Upheld in California, Hawai'i

Robert Jablon in Los Angeles
Associated Press
March 3, 2008

The Navy must abide by limits on its sonar training off Southern California because the exercises could harm dozens of species of whales and dolphins, a federal appeals court ruled.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday night rejected the Navy's appeal of restrictions that banned high-powered sonar within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of the coast and set other limits that could affect Navy training exercises.

Also on Friday, a federal judge in Hawai'i issued a similar ban for that state's coastline.

In the California case, the appellate judges let stand most of a lower court injunction that set the limits, but the court altered two restrictions that the Navy argued could harm the readiness of its ships for combat.

Conservation groups that had sued to block the Navy's use of high-powered sonar said the decision was a victory for their side.

"The court is saying that neither the president nor the U.S. Navy is above the law," Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Saturday.

"The court found that the Navy must be environmentally responsible when training with high intensity sonar and that doing so won't interfere with military readiness," he said.

Shifted Risk?

The Navy has argued that additional restrictions would hamper its ability to train effectively.

"In ordering additional mitigation to reduce the risk to marine mammals, the order shifts the risk to sailors and Marines," Capt. Scott Gureck, a Navy spokesperson, said in a statement responding to the Hawaii ruling.

(Related story: Sonar Banned in U.S. Navy Exercise to Protect Hawai'I Whales [July 6, 2006])

Southern California's coastal waters are home to dozens of species of whales and dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Nine species are federally listed as endangered or threatened.

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