"What does it mean? How will this ruling affect the ongoing debate as the Navy rolls out its regional EISs to govern sonar training in offshore ranges around the US coastlines and Pacific ocean? It’s interesting to note that the Navy did not appeal two aspects of the lower courts’ safety measures: establishing a 12-mile coastal buffer and avoiding a key biologically rich area in the offshore California range that this case concerned. A key issue in the EIS process is shaping up to be the Navy’s reluctance to set any areas off limits for sonar training; some observers speculate that the Navy’s hard line on this in draft EIS’s is designed to give them room to “give” a bit here in final negotiations with regulators and environmental advocates. It is also worth noting that the Navy did not appeal additional safety measures that were imposed by a Hawaiian court at nearly the same time as this California court made its decision;it appears that the California approach, which imposed shut-downs at larger distances (rather than simply reducing power gradually as whales came closer), and ordered mandatory power-downs in surface duct conditions whether whales were present or not, was too absolute for the Navy to accept, while the Hawaiian approach, which called for gradual shifts of operational procedures only when whales were observed, was deemed less disruptive to Naval training needs. Of course, the underlying question is whether nearby whales will be seen; the more stringent Californian measures were aimed to protect deep-diving beaked whales, which are rarely seen at the surface. A key point in the Supreme Court decision, and indeed, the Navy argument, was that the mere “possibility” of harm to whales (especially ones that are difficult to find and are rarely present), does not justify disruption of Naval training, despite the fact that in some cases, deaths have occurred. (The Navy counts six such incidents involving a total of a few dozen whales; environmentalists suspect sonar as a factor in up to twenty incidents since 1996, and suggest that beachings represent a small proportion of likely mortality). Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, stated that even if some harm to whales was more clearly known to be occurring, that the Navy’s need for training would still outweigh this harm. There may be an emerging consensus that is close to the interim rules imposed by the Appeals Court in this case: setting more stringent safety measures, while giving Naval commanders leeway to continue sonar transmissions if the situation warrants. This approach seems to have allowed the Navy to successfully complete the first 13 of the 14 planned training missions off California, and, it is at the root of a long-term agreement between NRDC and the Navy that is currently governing deployment of the low-frequency active sonar system in the Western Pacific."
If you want more information, check out the Acoustic Ecology Institute's extensive web page presenting detailed information on the claims of both the NRDC and the Navy on whales and sonar. Check it out to learn more about the science behind this issue - there's still much uncertainty about how to quantify the effects of sonar on whales.
(Our standard disclaimer: opinions expressed in links to external websites are not necessarily those of ASOC.)