Loud Sonar Reined in by Legal Decisions


Two recent court decisions support our claims that Low Frequency Active sonar (LFA), other active sonars, and airguns pose some of the greatest threats to whales, dolphins, and all ocean life across the globe.

On January 24, 2003, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti blocked Dr. Peter Tyack of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from blasting migrating gray whales-including newborns and pregnant females-off the California coast with 180 to 210 decibels of sound to test their reactions. Dr. Tyack is one of the principal biologists testing active sonars for the U.S. Navy.

Two weeks earlier, Judge Conti issued a temporary restraining order against such studies, allowing us to halt plans to put swimmers in the water to protect whales by blocking sonar transmissions (which cannot occur when humans are in the water).

Animal welfare and environmental organizations brought suit asserting that the National Marine Fisheries Service did not conduct a proper environmental assessment to conclude that Tyack's studies would not pose a significant risk to whales. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Bush Administration's attempts to cut red tape and circumvent comprehensive environmental assessments are increasingly being "tripped up in the courts."

In a second court decision last October, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth LaPorte imposed a global ban on the Navy's deployment and testing of LFA sonar, agreeing with arguments offered by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that the device poses an unacceptable risk to marine mammals.

However, Judge LaPorte also agreed with the Navy that the device was needed to find quiet enemy submarines. She directed the opposing attorneys to find a place where the intensely loud sonar could be tested. The two sides struck a deal allowing LFA testing in about a million square miles of ocean around the Mariana Islands in the Pacific, specifically avoiding the coasts of Japan and the Philippines. Clearly, any LFA deployment is unacceptable.

This is just the first phase of this court challenge. In issuing the original injunction in October, the judge found that it was likely that NRDC will prevail in its attempt to win a permanent injunction on LFA in her court over the next few months. The current deal allows continued testing during this period.