Supreme Court Rules on Sonar

The final curtain fell on the drama about sea life and submarines yesterday when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the U.S. Navy. After lower courts ruled in favor of protecting marine mammals—beaked whales in particular—from Navy-conducted sonar exercises, the justices reversed the decision.


Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, stating, “even if plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of irreparable injury, such injury is outweighed by the public interest and the Navy’s interest in effective, realistic training of its sailors.”The dissenters, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Stephen G. Breyer, had varying opinions about which restrictions the Navy should have to abide by when conducting mid-frequency sonar exercises.

As I reported in Audubon last May, the plaintiff, the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that the Navy’s responsibility is to protect both the American public and the environment.

Research on the effects of sonar on marine life is ongoing. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working with the Navy in a number of places, including Hawaii and the Bahamas, to better understand how marine mammals react to sonar. Although the Navy hasn’t seen an injured marine mammal in 40 years of exercises, there have been reports of beached whales after sonar exercises in Greece, the Canary Islands, and the Bahamas.

Justice Ginsburg pointed to the potential for harm to the animals, according to The New York Times. “Justice Ginsburg said the service had predicted that a current set of exercises off the California coast would cause lasting injuries to hundreds of beaked whales, along with vast behavioral disturbances to whales, dolphins and sea lions.”

The legal battle has drawn to a close, but the war isn’t over, writes the Los Angeles Times. The Obama administration isn’t obligated to follow the same guidelines. Let’s just hope that the sonar doesn’t mean we have to say sayonara to the sea-dwelling mammals.

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