Court rules against US Navy’s current use of whale-harming sonar

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Life just got better for whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.

The use of low-frequency sonar in the world’s oceans has been a point of controversy and contention … and no shortage of court decisions. In the latest, a federal appeals court in San Francisco has ruled that U.S. officials shouldn’t have allowed the Navy to use sonar at levels that could harm whales and other marine mammals.

In 2012 the National Marine Fisheries Service granted the Navy approval of limited use of sonar – with requirements to reduce sonar levels in areas where marine mammal populations were high. The standard, however, lacked an order for similar protections in other areas where the animals' presence was unknown. These included some offshore areas that had previous protection and other zones which scientists say could be likely habitats, according to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sonar is used by the U.S. Navy to detect submarines, but it also can prove devastating to whales, seals and pinnipeds by disrupting their feeding and mating habits.

As described by Scientific American:

Sonar systems – first developed by the U.S. Navy to detect enemy submarines – generate slow-rolling sound waves topping out at around 235 decibels; the world’s loudest rock bands top out at only 130. These sound waves can travel for hundreds of miles under water, and can retain an intensity of 140 decibels as far as 300 miles from their source.

These rolling walls of noise are no doubt too much for some marine wildlife. While little is known about any direct physiological effects of sonar waves on marine species, evidence shows that whales will swim hundreds of miles, rapidly change their depth (sometime leading to bleeding from the eyes and ears), and even beach themselves to get away from the sounds of sonar.

Following the 2012 approval, environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit in San Francisco arguing that the federal administration had approved emissions at sound levels that violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, reports SF Gate. "A federal magistrate disagreed but was overruled Friday by the appeals court, which said government officials had disregarded their own experts’ warnings about sonar’s potential impacts."

The 2012 standard protects zones that show a “bias toward U.S. waters,” the court said, with some zones on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S. but none on the Pacific coast of South America and only a scattered few in other waters.

“The result is that a meaningful proportion of the world‘s marine mammal habitat is under-protected,” said Judge Ronald Gould in the 3-0 ruling, which would also set standards for later renewals of the program. He said the government had failed to comply with a law that requires it to make sure its peacetime oceanic programs have “the least practicable adverse impact on marine mammals.”

For more, see the ruling here.

Via The Guardian

Tags: Animals | Animal Welfare | Dolphins | Whales

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