A federal judge ruled on March 31 that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) acted illegally in approving US Navy testing and training activities that threaten widespread harm to marine life in a vast region of the Pacific Ocean. The ruling stems from a December 2013 lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of AWI, the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Ocean Mammal Institute (see Winter 2014 AWI Quarterly).
NMFS had approved the Navy’s proposed five-year plan despite acknowledging that the Navy’s use of explosives and sonar, along with vessel strikes, could result in thousands of animals suffering death, permanent hearing loss, or lung injuries. Millions of other animals could be left with temporary injuries and significant disruptions to feeding, breeding, communicating, resting, and other essential behaviors—an estimated 9.6 million instances of harm to marine mammals alone.
Noting the “stunning number of marine mammals” threatened by the plan, Judge Susan Oki Mollway of the US District Court for the District of Hawaii found that NMFS violated its legal duties under the Endangered Species Act to ensure Navy training would not push endangered whales and turtles to extinction, and that NMFS violated its duties under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to prevent harm to marine mammal populations. Judge Mollway also ruled that NMFS and the Navy failed to evaluate alternatives that would place biologically important areas off-limits to training and testing, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Judge Mollway concluded that the Navy’s claim that it needs unfettered access to the waters in question and could not avoid—even temporarily—biologically important areas where marine mammals breed, nurse their young, and feed, “makes no sense given the size of the ocean area involved.”