Sonar Wins in Supreme Court

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictions on the use of sonar by the U.S. Navy during training exercises that are meant to protect whales, saying that the rules endanger sailors' lives and national security.

In 2000, a coalition of environmental groups sued the Navy to restrict its proposed use of a sonar array during exercises at sea (Science, 11 January, p. 147). The groups demanded that ships use lookouts and cease sonar operations if marine mammals come within 2000 meters of the ships during operations off the coast of southern California. Beaked whales frequent the deep canyons where enemy submarines might hide. The Navy argued that its restrictions, including a 180-meter lookout, were sufficient.

Some scientists said that the "mid-frequency active" sonar that the Navy uses during training might harm whales and cause injury or strandings. The Navy said that the risk was lower, but the high court did not rule on the merits of the two arguments. Instead, in a 5-4 decision it said that for legal reasons, such environmental concerns are "plainly outweighed by the Navy's need to conduct realistic training exercises to ensure that it is able to neutralize the threat posed by enemy submarines."

The ruling has limited impact on whales since it deals with sonar restrictions, also known as "mitigation" measures, put on 14 exercises over 2 years; only one of those remains to be conducted. But the Navy accepted some new court-ordered restrictions on its sonar operations this year, including avoiding coastal areas and certain key whale habitats.

In recent years, the Navy has been more willing to file paperwork assessing environmental impact, says Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Michael Jasny. But "it remains to be seen the quality of mitigation the Navy will adopt" going forward, he says. In a statement, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead said the Navy would "continue to train realistically and certify the Sailors and Marines of our Navy strike groups in a manner that protects our nation's security and the precious maritime environment."