In a 66-page ruling handed down today, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway in Honolulu ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Services should not have approved the U.S. Navy’s training activities in the Pacific Ocean a couple years ago because they harm too many marine mammals.
“The Navy and Fisheries Service had concluded that, over the plan’s five-year period, the Navy’s use of explosives and sonar, along with vessel strikes, could result in thousands of animals suffering death, permanent hearing loss or lung injuries,” stated an April 1 news release on the ruling from Earthjustice, which legally challenged the Fisheries Service approval in December 2013 on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and Ocean Mammal Institute. “Millions of others could be left with temporary injuries and significant disruptions to feeding, breeding, communicating, resting and other essential behaviors. In all, the Navy’s plan would cause an estimated 9.6 million instances of harm to marine mammals.”
That’s a huge number. Nearly three years ago, when I wrote this story on the Navy’s proposed Pacific testing and training activities, the estimate of instances of harm was just around 2 million. Of that, the Navy estimated, the exercises would kill 200 mammals and inflict another 1,600 injuries each year.
For its part, the Navy says it must conduct training exercises in the Pacific, especially using active sonar, to keep the nation safe. This, Earthjustice attorney David Henkin says, doesn’t give the service the right to inflict biological damage wherever they see fit.
“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,” said Henkin in the Earthjustice news release. “The Navy can fulfill its mission and, at the same time, avoid the most severe harm to dolphins, whales and countless other marine animals by simply limiting training and testing in a small number of biologically sensitive areas.”
Mollway’s ruling wasn’t subtle, either, and stated that the Navy exercises violate the Marine Mammals Protection Act (MMPA), Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. Here’s her ruling on the MMPA:
“No one is disputing the importance of military readiness, but recognition of that importance does not permit the parties or this court to ignore the MMPA. Although MMPA provisions have been adjusted with respect to military activities, those adjustments do not permit the Navy to skirt the MMPA purely to avoid having its training and testing activities interrupted.”
Mollway was also downright sarcastic and even a little mean:
The government actions that are challenged in this case permit the Navy to conduct training and testing exercises even if they end up harming a stunning number of marine mammals, some of which are endangered or threatened. Searching the administrative record’s reams of pages for some explanation as to why the Navy’s activities were authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”), this court feels like the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” who, trapped for days on a ship becalmed in the middle of the ocean, laments, “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”
According to this Los Angeles Times story from earlier today, the Navy is still “studying the ruling and could not comment on its details.”
Photo of 2012 RIMPAC exercises: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ryan J. Mayes/U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons