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Whales, Navy clash at high court

The justices will consider whether the Navy must heed restrictions on use of sonar off California.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 2008

A whale dives off the southern California coast. The Navy conducts training exercises in the region.

Reed Saxon/AP/file



Call this story “save the whales” meets “The Hunt for Red October.”

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On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court wades into a dispute between the US Navy and a group of conservationists over the use of mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar during large-scale naval training exercises off the southern coast of California.

MFA sonars send pulses of loud noise through the water with such intensity that it can disrupt or injure marine mammals nearby. In some instances, scientists say, it can trigger fatal mass strandings.

The case doesn’t simply pit the environment against national security. It is also a major clash over power – the power of judges to order environmental compliance versus the power of the president and the executive branch to defend the nation. But at its most basic, the case is about whales and warfare.

California’s coastal waters are among the richest and most biologically diverse in the world. The region features 37 species of marine mammals, including endangered blue whales, pygmy sperm whales, beaked whales, and bottle­nose dolphins.

The offshore area is also an important training ground for the US Navy. It is the only place on the West Coast offering all the land, air, and seafloor features needed to train US air, sea, and undersea forces simultaneously in an integrated operation.

In March 2007, lawyers with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and five other environmental groups filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Navy to be more caring of the environment when using MFA sonar during 11 planned training exercises off the southern California coast.

US District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper issued a preliminary injunction and ordered the Navy to halt its training exercises unless it adopted a court-ordered mitigation plan to reduce the potential harmful effects of the sonars. The plan called for shutting down sonars whenever marine mammals were detected within 1.25 miles.

The chief of naval operations objected, saying the court’s plan would “cripple” the Navy’s ability to train personnel to combat-ready status.

“Anti-submarine warfare is a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game that may span days and require large teams of personnel working in shifts around the clock,” according to the government’s brief. “Terminating or reducing sonar transmissions while attempting to locate and track a submarine, even for a relatively brief period, may allow the submarine to go undetected or escape.”

President Bush exercised his authority as commander in chief to exempt the Navy’s training from certain environmental requirements, declaring that the effort was “essential to national security.”

At the same time, the White House Council on Environmental Quality issued an emergency exemption for the Navy.