Court Rules Navy Noise Causes Too Much Harm to Marine Mammals

A federal judge declares the National Marine Fisheries Service did not do its job to protect dolphins and whales

breaching whale
Paul Souders/Corbis

“A deaf whale is a dead whale,” marine biologists often quip. And for good reason: whales (as well as dolphins and porpoises) rely on their hearing as much as we humans rely on sight. Which is why it's troubling that the Navy's activities are leading whales to lose their hearing. And, in a court ruling last week, a judge found that the military branch is not doing enough to stop that from happening.

In late 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) approved the Navy’s five-year training plan, which included 9.6 million high-intensity sonar and subsurface detonations. In a court ruling last week, a U.S. federal judge decreed that, in approving this plan, the NMFS did not fulfill its obligations to protect marine mammals from unnecessary harm.

Earthwire explains the high cost of the navy’s activities to whales:

Deploying active sonar near a whale that’s trying to hunt is a bit like shining a spotlight in the eyes of a human in the grocery store. So when sonar-equipped ships enter an area, whales stop feeding. They also stray from migration paths and abandon their traditional habitats. If a whale is close to the ship when sailors switch on their sonar system, the consequences can be even more dramatic. The blast of sound can damage the whales’ lungs and digestive system and cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.

The navy itself estimated the training plan would result in the deaths of 155 whales over the five-year period and injure thousands more. (Some environmental groups claim it would be more.)

“Instead of downplaying the impacts on marine mammals – including endangered blue, fin and humpback whales – the government should be doing more to protect them from these harmful activities,” NRDC attorney Zak Smith told the O.C. Weekly after the ruling. “The Navy has solutions at its disposal to ensure it limits the harm to these animals during its exercises. It’s time to stop making excuses and embrace those safety measures.” And no, that doesn’t mean just throwing down some earplugs. 

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