A federal judge in Los Angeles banned the U.S. Navy from using high-powered sonar in nearly a dozen upcoming training exercises off Southern California, ruling Monday that it could "cause irreparable harm to the environment."
U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper issued the preliminary injunction after rejecting the Navy's request to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The lawsuit, along with a similar one filed by the California Coastal Commission, argues for broader safeguards to protect marine mammals from powerful blasts of mid-frequency active sonar that have been linked elsewhere to panicked behavior and mass die-offs of whales.
The Navy, which plans to appeal the decision, said even a temporary ban would disrupt crucial training of sailors before they are sent overseas. The Navy uses the sonar to detect potentially hostile vessels, including quiet diesel submarines, which one captain called "the most lethal enemy known" on the high seas.
"It's akin to sending a hunter into the woods after one of the most lethal preys known, but sending him in partly deaf and blind," said Navy Capt. Neil May, assistant chief of staff for 3rd Fleet training and readiness.
Over the last decade, scientists have linked mid-frequency active sonar to a number of mass strandings or panicked behavior of whales after naval exercises in the waters off Greece, Hawaii, the Bahamas and elsewhere.
In a well-documented case near the Canary Islands in 2003, an international team of scientists found that at least 10 beaked whales probably succumbed to the bends after bolting to the surface in a panic.
The dead whales washed ashore after the Spanish navy led international military exercises involving warships from the United States and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Pathologists found tissue in the whales' internal organs that appeared to have been damaged by compressed gas bubbles bursting inside them.
Navy lawyers argued in court that mid-frequency active sonar is crucial to national security and to keeping sailors safe from attacks by enemy submarines. Unlike passive listening devices that rely on detecting sounds, mid-frequency active sonar emits bursts of sound waves that can reveal even quiet submarines.
"Today, dozens of countries -- including North Korea and Iran -- have extremely quiet diesel-electric submarines, and more than 180 of them operate in the Pacific," said Vice Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet. "Active sonar is the best system we have to detect and track them."
To remove the temporary ban, the Navy will have to take the case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Navy lawyers plan to move quickly because the next training mission is scheduled to begin in September.
Cooper said it was never easy to balance the interests of wildlife with those of national security. But in this case, she said, environmental lawyers have made a persuasive case that the potential harm to whales and other marine life outweighs any harm to the Navy while the court case proceeds.
The lawsuit, according to environmental lawyers, could be settled quickly if the Navy would agree to more sweeping precautions, such as shutting off or reducing the intensity of the sonar when visibility is too low for spotters stationed on deck to see whales that venture into harm's way.
Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the judge's ruling in no way restricts the Navy's ability to use sonar against real threats or in battle. Instead, he said, the court decision zeroes in on training exercises planned long in advance in waters rich with endangered blue whales, various kinds of dolphins and migrating gray whales.
"Just as the Army has a responsibility not to train soldiers to shoot in the middle of a crowded city street, the Navy has a duty, when it's learning how to hunt with sonar, not to choose a practice range next to a marine sanctuary."
Cooper also ruled against the Navy last year in an earlier case, temporarily blocking the use of active sonar in multinational war games near Hawaii.
Ultimately, her decision forced the Navy to negotiate with environmentalists and establish a buffer zone and other precautionary measures before conducting its monthlong Rim of the Pacific exercises involving 40 surface ships and six submarines from the U.S., Korea, Japan and Australia.
Other federal judges have also shut down or forced the Navy and various marine researchers to negotiate for stronger safeguards. The U.S. Navy has already conducted three of 14 planned training missions scheduled over the next two years in Southern California waters.