Restriction on Navy sonar practices overturned by Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, Wednesday that restricting the use of sonar training off the coast of California would not be necessary, stating there was little evidence of harm to marine life, according to a report in The New York Times.

Environmental groups had appealed to lower federal courts to impose restrictions on the use of sonar in submarine-hunting exercises to protect whales and other mammals, according to the report. However, the Supreme Court said the federal courts abused their discretion by “second-guessing” the judgment of Navy officials and ordering them to limit sonar use and, in some cases, eliminate it.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the overall public interest tips in favor of the exercises without limits and that the most serious injury would be harm to an unknown number of marine mammals.

“In contrast, forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained anti-submarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet,” Roberts said in the report.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter said the impact on the marine life was sufficient enough to warrant limits. Environmental groups say the sonar can be as loud as 2,000 jet engines and that it can cause animals to suffer lasting physical trauma and changes in breeding and migration patterns, according to the report.

“This likely harm … cannot be lightly dismissed, even in the face of an alleged risk to the effectiveness of the Navy’s 14 training exercises,” Ginsburg states. “Sonar is linked to mass strandings of marine mammals; hemorrhaging around the brain and ears.”

Lawyers for the National Resources Defense Council countered that the Navy had agreed to other restrictions and that officials would continue to monitor and modify practices to avoid dangerous testing and training, according to the report. Roberts stated there was not “a single documented sonar-related injury to any marine mammal” in 40 years of similar practices off the coast of California.

The exercises have continued since the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that sonar must be limited when the ships are close to marine life.

-Elizabeth Ellis