Much to the delight of environmentalists and Santa Barbara whales alike, a local U.S. district court ruling has thwarted military sonar operations off the California coast.
U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled to uphold an injunction banning the use of sonar radar within 12 miles of the Southern California coastline earlier this week, negating a waiver signed by President George W. Bush that exempted the Navy from normal sonar regulations in the interest of national security.
National Resources Defense Council Attorney Joel Reynolds said that this ruling will serve to right a balance that was previously skewed in the military’s favor.
“It’s an excellent decision,” Reynolds said. “It reinstates the proper balance between national security and environmental protection.”
The issue dates back to early November, when a Federal Court of Appeals ordered the U.S. Navy to scale back its use of sonar in the vicinity of marine life in areas such as the Santa Barbara Channel before its next scheduled exercise. This ruling is the latest decision in an ongoing dispute between environmental groups and the U.S. Navy over the president’s jurisdiction in the matter.
Supporters of the ban claim that the powerful sonar used in offshore exercises disorients whales and other large sea mammals, making it difficult for marine animals to hear and hunt for food. Many feel that such exercises are responsible for a large number of the beached whales found along California’s coast each year, including a few that have wound up on Santa Barbara and Ventura County beaches. According to a federal study in 2000, naval sonar contributed to 16 whales and two dolphins beaching themselves in the Bahamas that year.
Reynolds said that if the Navy stopped using sonar along the California coast, it would not affect national security, but it would certainly help the area’s marine population.
“There are simple, proven ways to avoid this problem without compromising the Navy’s readiness,” Reynolds said.
According to the Ocean Mammal Institute, sonar technology emits an explosion of sound that reverberates off of underwater objects and travels back to the listener. This initial burst is what causes sensory damage to marine life, which is why some experts have recommended the use of more passive sonar. The institute also recommends magnetic sensory equipment and satellite disturbance detection.
Representatives of the Navy claim that the current technology is necessary as more and more countries, including China, develop new submarines that run more quietly and are harder to detect than older generations. According to Navy spokesman Capt. Scott Gureck, active sonar is the most effective defense against this new technology.
“These integrated sonar training exercises are absolutely vital for our strike groups to conduct before they deploy,” Gureck said.
Though the Navy has made no comment regarding its next legal action, it has the option to appeal the ruling to the 9th circuit court of appeals.