WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Navy could use sonar in submarine-hunting training exercises off Southern California without heeding restrictions imposed by a lower court to protect whales and dolphins.
The high court didn't question the scientific basis of concerns about harm to marine mammals, but ruled that the Navy's need for the exercises was more important.
The court ruled that several specific whale protections imposed by a lower court weren't needed, but left four in effect, which the Navy didn't challenge. The Navy also voluntarily adopted some protective measures.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the lead plaintiff, said that mid-frequency active sonar used by the Navy could fill vast areas of the ocean with dangerous levels of underwater noise that can kill or injure the creatures.
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Whales beached and some died in the Bahamas in 2000 when Navy vessels used mid-frequency sonar in the area. The council said there had been many mass strandings of whales related to sonar and that many of the whales suffered injuries including bleeding around the brain and ears.
The waters off Southern California are home to five endangered whale species.
The Supreme Court noted that Southern California is important for the Navy's training because it's the only area on the West Coast that's relatively close to land, air and sea bases and amphibious landing areas.
"The Navy's need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarines plainly outweighs" the arguments advanced by the environmentalists, the Supreme Court said in an opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts. The opinion called the sonar mission crucial because it's the only proven method of identifying submerged diesel-electric submarines operating on battery power.
"For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine mammals that they study and observe. In contrast, forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet," Roberts wrote.
The decision wasn't entirely clear-cut. Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, writing separately, agreed that the lower courts hadn't sufficiently explained their reasoning, and Breyer said he would've imposed tougher restrictions. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented altogether.
The Navy has taken steps since January 2007 to protect marine mammals during sonar exercises. However, it objected to two measures imposed by a lower court: stopping sonar use when marine mammals were spotted within 2,200 yards and powering down the sonar under certain other conditions.
The Bush administration's Council on Environmental Quality declared in January that "emergency circumstances" existed that should dissolve those limitations. In March, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's requirement that the Navy take specific steps to protect whales. The Supreme Court ruling reverses that decision.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said Wednesday's ruling wasn't a total loss for its defense of the whales.
Four of six measures to protect marine mammals that the lower court put in place remain in effect. They include a 12-nautical-mile buffer zone off the coast, protecting shallower waters where marine mammals congregate, said Zak Smith, an attorney for the council who worked on the case.
In addition, the Navy isn't allowed to train in an area of the ocean between Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands that's important for marine mammals.
"We're not opposed to the Navy's use of sonar. It's just there are better places to use it instead of areas of rich biological importance," Smith said.
(Michael Doyle contributed to this article.)
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