The Weekly routinely receives warnings that noise levels will rise off the South County coast due to military exercises at and off Camp Pendleton. Now, a federal court has ruled some underwater noise the military made off the Southern California and Hawaii coasts violated the law and illegally harmed thousands of whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Cetacean Society International, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Pacific Environment and Resources Center and Michael Stocker brought the case in December 2013 against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for granting the U.S. Navy a five-year plan for sonar and explosives testing and training.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway in Hawaii found that the NMFS, which is charged with protecting marine mammals, violated multiple requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act when it signed off on the Navy plan–and that the exercises that followed illegally harmed more than 60 whale, dolphin, seal and sea lion populations.
"Searching the administrative record's reams of pages for some explanation as to why the Navy's activities were authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service, this court feels like the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' who, trapped for days on a ship becalmed in the middle of the ocean, laments, 'Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink,'" Mollway wrote in her 66-page opinion.
When the suit was first announced, the NRDC and other plaintiffs claimed the government's own data showed whales, dolphins and other marine mammals would be blasted nearly 9.6 million times by high-intensity sonar and underwater detonations. The groups have linked habitat abandonment, permanent hearing loss, permanent injury and more than 150 deaths to the exercises.
"Defenseless marine mammals are going deaf and hungry and may die at the hands of our Navy, and the laws we have that are meant to limit such harms have been misused by the government," said Zak Smith, attorney with the NRDC Marine Mammal Protection Project representing the plaintiffs, after the court ruling.
"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," Smith continued. "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."
Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga said the ruling was under review and there would be no comment at this time.