The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Navy could continue its sonar training exercises, despite their potential to harm whales. Chief Justice John Roberts stated that the public interest in having a Navy trained under realistic conditions outweighed the interest in protecting whales. The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups who sued the Navy, explained that since only one of the disputed exercises remains to be completed, the ruling will likely have little impact. However, the case is important going forward because it overturned some restrictions placed on the Navy in the course of conducting its sonar exercises, including the cessation of sonar when within 2200 yards of marine mammals and a required reduction in sonar decibel levels under some ocean conditions. These restrictions had been mandated by a California judge and upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals previously. However, the ruling did not address the Navy's plan to complete its environmental impact statement after the exercises had been completed. Justice Ginsburg, in a dissenting opinion, determined that this was a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires such statements to be prepared before the execution of actions that may impact the environment.
Many of the group strandings of whales in recent years have likely been caused by sonar use, so while the exercises in question are almost over, it remains to be seen whether the Navy will act to protect whales. Justice Roberts asserted that the Navy had taken some voluntary actions to protect marine mammals, but environmental groups do not believe these actions are adequate. Overall, according to the New York Times, the Supreme Court's ruling stressed deference to military opinion and judgment. He cited statements from the Navy about the importance of the exercises. However, while national security is a critical issue, we shouldn't have to take the Navy's word for it. Of course they will be of the opinion that the exercises they have designed are the best, most effective, and most necessary. Certainly there are some outside experts who can speak to the necessity of the format of the exercises. Despite the Navy's protests that they have not harmed any mammals yet with their sonar, there is plenty of evidence that sonar is harmful.
The NRDC recommends some common-sense restrictions to protect whales:
"Necessary safety measures include putting rich marine mammal habitat off-limits; avoiding migration routes and feeding or breeding areas when marine mammals are present; and turning off active sonar when marine mammals and endangered species are spotted near by."
It would have been helpful if the court had more fully considered the feasibility of imposing these restrictions instead of deferring to the Navy. As it is, its narrow ruling perhaps suggests that the legal battle over sonar and whales will continue.