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Federal judge limits Navy sonar training

WASHINGTON – A federal judge Thursday severely limited the Navy’s ability to use mid-frequency sonar on a training range off the Southern California coast, ruling that the loud sounds would harm whales and other marine mammals if not tightly controlled.

The decision is a blow to the Navy, which has argued that it needs the flexibility to train its sonar operators without undue restrictions. In her decision, however, Federal District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper said the Navy could conduct productive training under the limitations, which she said were required under several environmental laws.

In particular, Cooper banned the use of the sonar within 12 nautical miles of the California coast, expanded from 1,100 yards to 2,200 yards the Navy’s proposed “shut down” zone in which sonar must be turned off whenever a marine mammal is spotted, required monitoring for the presence of animals for an hour before exercises involving sonar begin, and required that two National Marine Fisheries Service-trained lookouts be posted for monitoring during exercises. The judge also forbade sonar use in the Catalina Basin, an area with many marine mammals.

Navy spokeswoman Cindy Moore said the Navy was was reviewing the ruling.

Joel Reynolds, who argued the case for the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups, called the ruling “the most significant environmental mitigation that a federal court has ever ordered the U.S. Navy to adopt in its training with mid-frequency sonar.”

He said the council and others were especially pleased because “we have said from the beginning of this litigation that the Navy can meet its training objectives while substantially increasing protections against unnecessary harm to whales and other marine mammals.”

Active sonar has been used by navies around the world for decades to detect submarines, but marine specialists began to connect mass strandings of whales with the loud sound blasts only a decade ago. Sonar is believed to be especially harmful to deep-diving beaked whales, but the research is in its infancy and environmentalists say other species of endangered whales may be harmed as well.

Cooper’s ruling comes as the Navy is in the midst of a two-year series of training exercises off Southern California that involve extensive use of active sonar – which is used to detect a new generation of harder-to-detect submarines now operated by 41 nations.

Her order was issued in response to a November ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that supported limits on Navy sonar use but asked Cooper to tailor a narrower solution than she had previously. The appeals court judges left the door open for the Navy to revisit the rules if it considered them too strict. If the Navy were to appeal and lose the case again at the appeals court level, it could then appeal to the Supreme Court.

Last week, Navy Vice Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet in San Diego, said in an interview that the Navy already has 29 procedures in place to avoid harming marine mammals, and that the limits the NRDC and the state’s coastal commission were seeking would cripple sonar training.