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'Friends' join lawsuit seeking limits on Navy's use of sonar

A coalition of conservation and American Indian groups today sued the National Marine Fisheries Service 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.

“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.”

Representing InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the San Juans, Natural Resources Defense Council, and People For Puget Sound, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Jan. 26 for the District of Northern California, challenging NMFS’s approval of the Navy’s training activities in its Northwest Training Range Complex. The lawsuit calls on 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.

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.

The 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. In 2004, during war games near Hawai’i, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass beaching of up to 200 melonheaded 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.”

In late 2010, NMFS gave the Navy a permit for five years of expanded naval activity that 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.

“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. 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,” said Priscilla Hunter, chairwoman and co-founder of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. “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.”

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.

Marcie Keever of Friends of the Earth noted, “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. NMFS has failed in its duty to assure that the Navy is not pushing the whales closer to extinction.”

 

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