The decision was not unexpected, despite a federal court ruling (pdf) in September that ordered a halt to the testing until NMFS agreed to consider the best available science available in assessing the effect of sonar on marine mammals. U.S. District Judge Nandor Vadas agreed with environmental groups and local tribes that more up-to-date studies indicate dolphins and whales have “greater susceptibility” to mid-frequency sonar than previously thought.
The agency said it would do that in the future but it approved of the Navy’s due diligence to date and granted the permit. Earthjustice immediately filed a lawsuit (pdf) on behalf of environmental groups who claim that the Navy estimate of damage to marine life is low and that mitigation measures are being ignored.
The lawsuit cites NMFS estimates that 140 marine mammals will be killed, 2,000 will suffer permanent injury and 9.6 million marine mammals will have their migration, breeding, nursing, feeding and shelter disrupted. The Navy characterized the impact as “negligible.”
The animals might just be disturbed, rather than injured or killed, but loud oceans blasts, which are magnified by the water, are known to have significant effects on an animal’s internal navigation system. Some estimates say as many as 5 million marine mammals might suffer from ruptured eardrums and temporary hearing loss.
The lawsuit described the vast ocean area where the testing would be conducted as “some of the most biologically significant and productive marine areas in the world. They are home to at least forty-three (43) species of marine animals, including five endangered whale species (blue, fin, humpback, sei and sperm), endangered Hawai‘i insular false killer whales, endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and threatened Guadalupe fur seals.”
The lawsuit wants the NMFS decision put on hold until a proper environmental impact statement has been drawn up. As part of that study, Earthjustice wants the agency to give detailed consideration to taking “no action” on the permit, an option required for consideration by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It also wants an analysis included of scaled-down testing options that would spare the most sensitive marine habitats.
Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity, warned of dire results if the Navy plan is not changed: “The whales and dolphins who wind up in the middle of the war games don’t stand a chance against the Navy. This proposal increases the predicted harm to marine mammals by more than 10 times.”
Susan Millward, executive director of Animal Welfare Institute, emphasized that the lawsuit does not seek a ban on testing. “Rather, we are asking our government to take the required ‘hard look’ before inflicting this much harm on vulnerable marine mammals populations and to consider alternatives that would allow the Navy to achieve its goals with less damage. For taxpayer-funded activities at this scale, citizen oversight often helps create a better plan.”