Court rules for Navy in sonar dispute

November 12, 2008 10:08:58 PM PST
The Navy's use of sonar has long been a sore subject with environmentalists, who say the signals are harmful to whales. They have tried to stop the Navy from using one particular type of sonar and Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the subject.

Of all the battles ever fought by the Navy, Wednesday's victory before the Supreme Court was won, not with ammunition, but words.

The United States Navy has always had in place voluntary measures that allow us to respect marine mammals," Vice Adm. Samuel Locklear said.

The ruling applies to the Navy's use of mid-frequency sonar while training to hunt enemy submarines off the Southern California coast. The technology harms whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, according to environmentalists.

"Mid-frequency sonar is a sonar that doesn't go quite as far as low frequency, but is far more intense, and the damage to marine mammals is far greater," Stan Minasian of the Oceanic Society said.

For whales, they describe the sound as being 100 times more intense than a jet plane taking off.

As evidence, the Natural Resources Defense Council cites numerous cases of animals reacting strangely during testing and then washing ashore dead in the days that follow.

The issue became even more controversial last January, when President Bush lifted a court-imposed ban on such testing.

"The Navy needs to find alternative methods that don't harm marine mammals," Minasian said.

Once the legalese is stripped away, the case came down to a dispute between the Navy and national security, and environmentalists, who are worried about the whales. Following Wednesday's decision, the Navy has won and it gets to keep testing under realistic conditions.

"It's about being able for us to remain good stewards of the environment, but at the same time, be able to ensure that the young men and women that man our Navy and are doing the job their nation expects them to do, have the tools and the training necessary to do it," Locklear said.

Environmentalists did win on two minor points, including a minimum range limit when animals are present. They are hoping for more cooperation from the Navy with the next administration.


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