On Friday, a federal appeals court agreed with environmentalists that the US Navy currently uses sonars that are too powerful for marine wildlife. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 2012 order to permit the use of low-frequency sonars was at odds with provisions in the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Under the act, during peacetime the military and other entities must run programs that have “the least practicable adverse impact” on marine wildlife. Conservationists argued in court that Navy sonars can prevent marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, sea lions from properly feeding and mating.
Military sonars just like those in dolphins and whales use sound waves to locate submerged objects. But military sonars are much more powerful. Dolphins and whales use a sonar-like system to locate their pod members or prey.
The 2012 order was issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which ruled back then that the US Navy was allowed to use sonar in the presence of dozens of whale species and sea lions and seals. Under that order, military vessels were requested to turn off the sonar if the creatures were nearby.
The fisheries service granted Navy the permission to use the sonar in the Indian Ocean, Atlantic, Pacific, and the Mediterranean Sea. However, the court found that the agency omitted to grant protections to some parts of the oceans considered by its own researchers as biologically significant.
In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned a California court’s decision on sonar restrictions and allowed the Navy to use the technology freely. At the time, the high court decided that recreational, scientific and environmental interests were outweighed by military interests.
In 2008, justices ruled that the U.S. Navy was entitled to use sonars to detect enemy submarines despite the damage inflicted to marine ecosystems.
In 2015, however, conservationists rallied against the practice in Honolulu where a federal judge banned the use of mid-frequency sonars in some regions around Hawaiian Islands and Southern California.
The Honolulu judge banned even explosive training because it led to the death of more than 150 dolphins and whales in the region. Plus, 2,000 more marine mammals were injured during the training operations both in South California and Hawaii.
Conservationists complained that sonars disturb whales and force them to swim hundreds of miles without an obvious direction and strand themselves to escape the “rolling walls of noise”. Reportedly, military sonars can be for whales twice as loud as the loudest rock concert is for humans.
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