Skip to main content

Groups Sue Over Navy Sonar Impacts on Marine Mammals

  • Author:
  • Updated:

A broad coalition of conservation groups and American Indian Tribes on January 26 sued the Obama administration for failing to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Earthjustice, representing the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the San Juans, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and People For Puget Sound, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s approval of the Navy’s training activities in its Northwest Training Range Complex.

“The lawsuit calls on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to mitigate anticipated harm to marine mammals and biologically critical areas within the training range that stretches from Northern California to the Canadian border,” according to a statement from Earthjustice.

“These training exercises will harm dozens of protected species of marine mammals—southern resident killer whales, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and porpoises—through the use of high-intensity mid-frequency sonar,” said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups. “The Fisheries Service fell down on the job and failed to require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to protect them.”

The groups said the Navy uses a vast area of the West Coast for training activities, including anti-submarine warfare exercises involving tracking aircraft and sonar; surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises; air-to-surface bombing exercises; sink exercises; and extensive testing for several new weapons systems.

Tribes say exercises will hurt traditional cultural lifeways, whales

“Since the beginning of time, the Sinkyone Council’s member Tribes have gathered, harvested and fished for traditional cultural marine resources in this area, and they continue to carry out these subsistence ways of life, and their ceremonial activities along this Tribal ancestral coastline,” said Priscilla Hunter, chairwoman and co-founder of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. “Our traditional cultural lifeways, and our relatives such as the whales and many other species, will be negatively and permanently impacted by the Navy’s activities.”

“Both NMFS and the Navy have failed in their obligations to conduct government-to-government consultation with the Sinkyone Council and its member Tribes regarding project impacts,” Hunter emphasized.

Founded in 1986, the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization, is a California Indian peoples’ environmental consortium working to re-establish local Indian stewardship within the Sinkyone region of Northern California through land conservation, habitat restoration, and traditional resource management.

The member tribes of the Council are: the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians; Redwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians; Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians; Hopland Band of Pomo Indians; Potter Valley Band of Pomo Indians; Pinoleville Band of Pomo Indians; Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians; Robinson Rancheria; the Cahto Tribe and the Round Valley Indian Tribes.

In late 2010, NMFS gave the Navy a permit for five years of expanded naval activity that the groups said will harm or “take” marine mammals and other sealife. The permit allows the Navy to conduct increased training exercises that can harm marine mammals and disrupt their migration, nursing, breeding, or feeding, primarily as a result of harassment through exposure to the use of sonar.

High intensity sonar results in marine mammal strandings

Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in, among other places, the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands, and Spain, according to the conservation groups and Tribes.

In 2004, during war games near Hawai’i, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass beaching of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay.

In 2003, the USS Shoup, operating in Washington’s Haro Strait, exposed a group of endangered Southern Resident killer whales to mid-frequency sonar, causing the animals to stop feeding and attempt to flee the sound.

“In 2003, NMFS learned firsthand the harmful impacts of Navy sonar in Washington waters when active sonar blasts distressed members of J pod, one of our resident pods of endangered orcas,” said Kyle Loring, Staff Attorney for Friends of the San Juans. “Given this history, it is particularly distressing that NMFS approved the Navy’s use of deafening noises in areas where whales and dolphins use their acute hearing to feed, navigate, and raise their young, even in designated sanctuaries and marine reserves.”

“Whales and other marine mammals don’t stand a chance against the Navy,” summed up Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Navy’s mitigation plan for sonar use relies primarily on visual detection of whales or other marine mammals by so-called “ watch-standers” with binoculars on the decks of ships. If mammals are seen in the vicinity of an exercise, the Navy is to cease sonar use.

“Visual detection can miss anywhere from 25–95% of the marine mammals in an area,” said Heather Trim, Director of Policy for People For Puget Sound. “It’s particularly unreliable in rough seas or in bad weather. We learn more every day about where whales and other mammals are most likely to be found—we want NMFS to put that knowledge to use to ensure that the Navy’s training avoids those areas when marine mammals are most likely there.”

The litigation is not intended to halt the Navy’s exercises, but asks the Court to require NMFS to reassess the permits using the latest science and to order the Navy to stay out of biologically critical areas at least at certain times of the year.

A US Navy spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit, while a National Marine Fisheries Service spokesperson said the agency has not yet received any information on the suit.

Killer whales threatened by both Navy training and water exports

Marcie Keever of Friends of the Earth pointed out the dramatic impact that the Navy exercises could have upon endangered southern resident killer whales (orcas).

“It has become increasingly clear from recent research that the endangered southern resident killer whale community uses coastal waters within the Navy’s training range to find salmon during the fall and winter months,” said Keever. “NMFS has failed in its duty to assure that the Navy is not pushing the whales closer to extinction.”

The killer whales face a double threat now: Navy sonar testing and increased water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. A NOAA Fisheries biological opinion released on June 4, 2009 found that water pumping operations in the Central Valley by the federal Bureau of Reclamation jeopardize the continued existence of imperiled Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Delta smelt, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales, which rely on chinook salmon runs for food.

For the press release, the full complaint and a fact sheet, go to:

MLPA Initiative fails to protect ocean from military exercises

Ironically, one of reasons why this and similar lawsuits are so necessary is because California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative creates so-called “marine protected areas” that fail to protect the ocean from military testing, as well as pollution, corporate aquaculture, wave and wind energy projects and all other human impacts on the ocean than fishing and gathering.

The initiative is a privately funded process, overseen by a big oil lobbyist, marina developer, coastal real estate executive, agribusiness hack and other corporate operatives with many conflicts of interest, that is supported by the Western States Petroleum Association, Safeway Stores and the Walton Family Foundation. The MLPA process parallels the equally corrupt and corporate-controlled Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral canal to export northern California water to southern California.

In an egregious conflict of interest, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the “august body” that designed the so-called “marine protected areas,” falsely touted as “underwater parks” and “Yosemites of the Sea” by MLPA Initiative advocates, that went into effect on the Southern California Coast on January 1. Reheis-Boyd, a big oil industry lobbyist who relentlessly pushes for new offshore drilling off the California coast, the Keystone XL pipeline and the gutting of environmental laws, chaired the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force for the South Coast, as well as “serving” on the North Central Coast and North Coast MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Forces.