March 2, 2008 in Nation/World

Court upholds Navy ban on sonar

Robert Jablon Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – The Navy must abide by limits on its sonar training off the Southern California coast because the exercises could harm dozens of species of whales and dolphins, a federal appeals court ruled.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday night rejected the Navy’s appeal of restrictions that banned high-powered sonar within 12 miles of the coast and set other limits that could affect Navy training exercises to begin this month.

Also on Friday, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a similar ban for that state’s coastline.

In the California case, the three-member appellate panel let stand most of a lower court injunction that set the limits but did alter two restrictions that the Navy argued could harm the readiness of its ships for potential combat duty.

Conservation groups that had sued to block the Navy’s use of high-powered sonar said the decision was a victory.

“The court is saying that neither the president nor the U.S. Navy is above the law,” Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Saturday.

“The court found that the Navy must be environmentally responsible when training with high intensity sonar, and that doing so won’t interfere with military readiness,” he said.

The Navy said it may seek a review of the ruling.

Southern California’s coastal waters are home to dozens of species of whales and dolphins, seals and sea lions. Nine species are federally listed as endangered or threatened.

In its ruling, the appellate court said the Navy has acknowledged that high-powered sonar may cause hearing loss and other injuries to marine mammals. The court said the Navy has estimated that its Southern California exercises would expose more than 500 beaked whales to harassment and would result in temporary hearing loss to thousands of marine mammals.

A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled in January that despite a waiver from President Bush, the Navy is not exempt from environmental laws. The judge issued a preliminary injunction that, in addition to the 12-mile ban, required the Navy to limit the decibel levels of its sonar under certain ocean conditions and to stop using it altogether when a marine mammal is detected within 2,200 yards of a sonar source.

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