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Court to Navy: Shhhh! Sonar Disruptive to Sea Life

PHOTO: The Navy tries to watch for orcas before blasting sonar during training, but a federal judge says new research must be taken into account that might restrict training in areas while whales and dolphins are present. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
PHOTO: The Navy tries to watch for orcas before blasting sonar during training, but a federal judge says new research must be taken into account that might restrict training in areas while whales and dolphins are present. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
September 27, 2013

SEATTLE - Some peace and quiet for Pacific Coast whales and dolphins is the implied promise in a U.S. District Court ruling this week. The judge said the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to take the most current research into account when it authorized five years of military training activities using sonar off the coast.

A coalition of conservation groups and Native American tribes said new studies show that marine life is more sensitive to sonar than was previously thought. The groups' attorney, Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, said they are asking for more consideration.

"We're not talking about stopping all training all the time, but maybe doing different training or refraining from training during seasons of the year or months of the year in certain areas, when we know the whales are there," Mashuda said.

The NMFS permits allow the Navy a certain number of marine life casualties as a consequence of training, and military personnel do try to watch for whales and dolphins on the water. The agency had said it would take the new research into account when the current permit expires in 2015. The court asked that it reassess the situation sooner.

The groups represent 10 Native American tribes and several environmental organizations that work in Washington, Oregon and California. In prime whale-watching territory, attorney Kyle Loring with Friends of the San Juans said they got involved because of the potential threat to tourism.

"Being based in Friday Harbor and right in the heart of this portion of the Puget Sound, we benefit significantly from the whales and the other marine mammals that the proposed increase in warfare training would impact. That's what drew us in," Loring explained.

Naval training takes place in huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean, and uses sonar to detect underwater objects and measure depth. Research has found that the loud, high-pitched sound scares and confuses marine mammals and has killed some of them.

The court decision document is online at earthjustice.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA