Judge Finds Navy Project in the Pacific Violates Three Conservation Acts


Environmental groups win their case against the National Marine Fisheries Service, who approved U.S. Navy training and testing activities expected to cause irreparable harm to marine species.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday (March 31st) that a U.S. Navy project set to be conducted in the waters near Hawaii and off the Southern California coast, which includes practice vessel strikes, sonar, and explosives, was unlawful, imperiling the health of protected marine mammals. The ruling comes as a major victory for the non-profit environmental law group Earthjustice, who brought about the lawsuit in December 2013 on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Ocean Mammal Institute, Animal Welfare Institute, and the Conservation Council for Hawaii.

The groups sued on the grounds that the National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, failed to consider alternatives that would prove less harmful to wildlife, terms necessitated by the National Environmental Policy Act. The explanation for this stubbornness was that the Navy needed continual access to every square mile of the Pacific in order to complete exercises, something the judge said “makes no sense given the size of the ocean area involved.”

David Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney leading the case, said in a press release that the “court’s ruling recognizes that, to defend our country, the Navy doesn’t need to train in every square inch of a swath of ocean larger than all 50 United States combined.”

Executive director of the Animal Welfare Institute Susan Millward added that the court, in their decision, also clarified that “the law doesn’t allow the Fisheries Services to give the Navy a blank check to harm unlimited numbers of animals.”

Ocean mammals are dependent on a sharp sense of hearing for hunting, navigation, and reproductive events. Many times over, scientists and conservations groups have shown the nasty biological repercussions of military operations like live-explosions and sonar, such as broken eardrums and mass beaching. In 2004, naval operations were linked to the stranding of roughly 200 melon-headed whales in Hawaii.

The judge, who called the anticipated 9.6 thousand animals slated to be impacted by the Navy’s project a “stunning number,” also concluded that the NMFS failed to ensure the undertakings would not increase the chances of extinction or bring harm to endangered marine populations, legal obligations the service is bound to under the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts.

The judge took extra effort to point out the flaws in the Fishery Service’s authorization of Navy requests, stating that the court’s pursuit of a plausible explanation amongst NMFS records drew parallels to that of the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coledridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” who upon being trapped on a ship mid-ocean for days, discovers, “Water, water, every where, Not any drop to drink.”

“This is a very important victory for our oceans,” said president of the Ocean Mammal Institute Marsha Green in a press release. “The Navy can, and must, find ways to accomplish its mission that reduce the amount of deafening noise that prevents marine mammals from communicating, navigating, feeding and finding mates.”

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About the author

Jennifer Huizen is a science reporter specializing in public health, medicine, conservation and the environment, with a particular fondness for anything that requires a microscope to see, from viruses and microbes to the tiny particles that make up our world as we know it. Switching from a medical path in 2013 to attend Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, her work has since appeared online in outlets like Scientific American, ClimateWire and Audubon, and has been written about by Vice’s Motherboard as well as the American Council on Science and Health.