Federal Judge Agrees: LFA May Cause "Irreparable Harm" to Marine Life

On August 26, 2003, United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of California, Elizabeth D. Laporte, imposed a "tailored" injunction on the Navy, preventing unfettered deployment of its Low Frequency Active sonar (LFA).

"The Marine Mammal Protection Act, for example, reflects the public's profound interest in safeguarding whales, dolphins and other magnificent mammals that still live in the ocean. Unfortunately, the populations of many of these creatures, once abundant, have shrunk and some are on the verge of extinction."
-U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth D. Laporte

Although the Judge was unwilling to ban the Navy from using LFA under any circumstances, especially in these days of heightened terrorism alert, she does make it quite clear that a drastic curtailment of the Navy's plans was vital to the protection of all ocean life. She concludes, "It is undisputed that marine mammals, many of whom depend on sensitive hearing for essential activities like finding food and mates and avoiding predators, and some of whom are endangered species, will at a minimum be harassed by the extremely loud and far traveling LFA sonar.... Further, endangered species including whales, listed salmon and sea turtles, will be in LFA sonar's path. There is little margin of error without threatening their survival."

Her detailed 73-page decision weighs the harms to the marine environment and its inhabitants of full deployment and to the United States Navy of banning deployment, and concludes that a permanent injunction could be "carefully tailored to reduce the risk to marine mammals and endangered species by restricting the sonar's use in areas that are particularly rich in marine life, while still allowing the Navy to use this technology for testing and training in a variety of oceanic conditions." Representatives for the environmental plaintiffs and Naval defendants have been ordered to meet on October 7 to iron out the details of the injunction.

Judge Laporte's decision notes that the buffer zones around biologically-rich coastal areas, in which LFA deployment would be prohibited, must be extended beyond the current limit of 12 miles. Additionally, the Navy will be prevented from deploying the sonar when marine mammals and endangered sea creatures such as turtles are known to migrate, breed, or feed, during certain times or in certain areas.

The Judge's decision came after years of rulings by the National Marine Fisheries Service in support of authorizing the Navy's LFA deployment and subsequent legal challenges by environmental and animal protection organizations.

The plaintiffs argued that the clear intent of the Marine Mammal Protection Act is to avoid any harm to marine mammals. LFA use could damage a high percentage of certain populations of threatened or endangered species such as the gray whale. Further, LFA use could harm other imperiled sea creatures such as sea turtles, cause anxiety and panic among unaware recreational human divers, and contribute to the further drastic reductions of some fish stocks.