The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Navy could use sonar in submarine-hunting training exercises off Southern California without heeding restrictions imposed by a lower court to protect whales and dolphins.
The court didn't question the scientific basis of concerns about harm to marine mammals, but ruled that the Navy's need for the exercises was more important.
The court ruled that several specific whale protections imposed by a lower court weren't needed, but left four in effect, which the Navy didn't challenge. The Navy also voluntarily adopted some protective measures.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the lead plaintiff, said that midfrequency active sonar used by the Navy could fill vast areas of the ocean with dangerous levels of underwater noise that can kill or injure the creatures.
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Whales beached and some died in the Bahamas in 2000 when Navy vessels used midfrequency sonar in the area. The council said there had been many mass strandings of whales related to sonar and that many of the whales suffered injuries.
The waters off Southern California are home to five species of endangered whales.
The court noted that Southern California is important for the Navy's training because it's the only area on the West Coast that's relatively close to land, air and sea bases and amphibious landing areas.
“The Navy's need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarines plainly outweighs” the arguments advanced by the environmentalists, the Supreme Court said in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts. The opinion called the sonar mission crucial because it's the only proven method of identifying submerged diesel-electric submarines operating on battery power.
The decision wasn't entirely clear-cut. Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, writing separately, agreed that the lower courts hadn't sufficiently explained their reasoning, and Breyer said he would've imposed tougher restrictions. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented altogether.