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Lawsuit filed to halt US Navy's use of sonar that damages marine life

Monday, January 30, 2012 by: Tara Green
Tags: US Navy, sonar, marine life

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(NaturalNews) Five environmental groups have joined forces with an inter-tribal group representing ten Northern California American Indian tribes to sue the US government for failing to limit sonar naval training exercises harmful to marine life.

A killer sound

Whale species like orcas and humpbacks, as well as seals, sea lions and dolphins can sustain serious injury and even die as a result of the extremely high decibel sounds broadcast through the water. The lawsuit claims that the government has violated both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act through its support of the sonar exercises off the West Coast.

The Seattle-based environmental law group Earthjustice, representing the Center for Biological Diversity; the Natural Resources Defense Council; the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council; Friends of the Earth; the People for Puget Sound and Friends of the San Juans, filed suit in US District Court in San Francisco last week against the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 2010, the Service granted a permit to the US Navy to conduct sonar training exercises in waters along the West Coast. The Navy at that time won complete approval for its five-year plan for operations in the Northwest Training Range Complex, an area roughly the size of California, approximately 126,000 nautical square miles, stretching from the waters off Mendocino County in California to the Canadian border. Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles noted that the fisheries service should balance naval requests for training with the need to protect marine life. "Nobody's saying they shouldn't train," she said. "But it can't be possible that it's no-holds-barred, that there's no place where this can't happen."

The plaintiffs point out that the Navy uses sonar in "biologically critical areas" during key hunting and breeding times. The suit says that the National Marine Fisheries Service should have implemented some restrictions in order to protect these areas. "NMFS (the fisheries service) has failed in its duty to assure that the Navy is not pushing the whales closer to extinction," said Marcie Keever, legal director of Friends of the Earth, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director for the Center for Biological Diversity noted that "Whales and other marine animals don't stand a chance against the Navy." The environmentalists seek to have the court invalidate the five-year permit granted to the Navy. If their suit is successful, the fisheries service will be required to study the long-term effects of sonar on marine mammals, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and other environmental protection laws.

The complaint filed in court cites different species of marine mammals beached because of sonar naval exercises, resulting in the death of dozens of animals. Necropsies done on the dead mammals revealed "hemorrhaging in and around the ears, and other tissues related to sound conduction or production ... had minor to severe damage." The suit also states that sonar can disorient marine mammals, making them ascend too quickly. Marine animals have been found with organ damage and internal injuries similar to decompression sickness, the condition divers suffer when they surface too quickly. In a well-publicized 2003 incident, a US Navy ship was caught on tape blasting a group of endangered Southern Resident killer whales with mid-frequency sonar. Following the incident, dead porpoises were found in the area.

Native American rights

The suit points out that, in addition to harming marine wildlife, unrestricted naval sonar activities interfere with the cultural subsistence practices of native tribes. Although the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council is legally entitled to government-to-government consultation, its requests for meetings with the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service to the effects of sonar have been ignored.

California Congressman Mike Thompson issued a statement supporting the lawsuit, stating "No one is saying the Navy cannot, or should not train. However, the Navy should train in a way that respects local communities, natural resources and our environment - and the National Marine Fisheries Service should be the agency that ensures those protections. Instead, the Navy wants authority to train wherever and however it wants. Expanded training should only be done after sound science determines that it won't cause harm."

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