A US court of appeals has ruled that Navy sonar used to detect submarines has broken whale-protecting marine law.
For over a decade, the Navy has been attempting to get approval for use of their low-frequency active sonar, used to detect enemy submarines, despite the damage to sonar-using marine mammals such as whales and dolphins.
Back in 2012, the Navy received permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to use the sonar as long as it shut down or delayed the equipment when there was direct evidence of marine animals detected nearby. Loud sonar pulses were banned near coastlines and in protected waters.
Unfortunately, under such vague guidelines, the Navy used the array equipment in both known and unknown biodiverse hotspots, such as the Galapagos Islands.
Environmental advocates led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) claimed this was a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and have successfully taken the NOAA to court to reappeal its approval.
“It’s important to understand that the ocean is a world of sound, not sight,” Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s marine mammal protection project, told Wired. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises rely on underwater sound for navigating, hunting, meeting mates, and communicating. Interference in the frequencies used by these animals “can mean the difference between feeding and not feeding, or breeding and not breeding,” said Jasny.
Sound waves from these sonar systems can travel hundreds of miles underwater without losing intensity and reach up to 235 decibels. There have already been reported cases of whales stranding themselves while fleeing from Navy-based exercises using sonar.
The court in San Francisco has ruled that although the Navy did try and follow the guidelines, they failed to meet a section of the protection act that states the program has to comply with making "the least practicable adverse impact on marine mammals," thus breaking the law, according to the BBC. It also concluded that the NMFS "did not give adequate protection to areas of the world's oceans flagged by its own experts as biologically important."
The case will now be sent back to a lower court for consideration, but the NRDC are counting this, the third time they have taken NOAA to court over the sonar, a victory. There is no word yet on how this ruling will change the Navy’s policy, but they will certainly have to rethink their use of sonar to avoid both harm to marine animals and legal repercussions in the future.