Recent Court Ruling Brings Hope for Safety of Marine Life



“It’s important to understand that the ocean is a world of sound, not sight,” says Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s marine mammal protection project.

In a recent court case decision on July 15, 2016, the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council) and several co-defendants won out over NOAA Fisheries in a ruling regarding noise pollution in the oceans which often tends to harm marine life, such as whales and dolphins, who use sonar to communicate over long distances. As a result of this ruling, the US Navy will be barred from using its deep submarine hunting sonar in much of the world’s oceans during peacetime.

For the past 10 years, the US Navy has been battling in courts regarding the safety of the use of their ultra loud sonar array with regard to marine life. The decision made on July 15 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, CA dictates that the sonar used by the US Navy is harmful to marine wildlife, and therefore the Navy will be barred from using it. 

In the 1970s, the US Navy developed a special, long-range sonar device to help track USSR submarines that were getting quieter and quieter. At the same time, things like oil drilling and marine shipping created more noise pollution in the ocean, making it more difficult to track enemy submarines. In response, the US Navy developed a sonar device called: Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active, or SURTASS/LFA, which would emit loud, low frequencies between 100 to 500 hz which is generally the frequency at which marine life communicates. 

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises use sound to find food, meet mates, avoid predators, maintain social groups, or to simply navigate the wide seas. “Marine mammal species perceive these SURTASS/LFA sounds as a threat and react accordingly,” says Jasny. On some occasions, these reactions can mean death for these marine animals. For example, this low-frequency sonar has been cited as the cause of several mass whale and dolphin beachings. If the marine animals are diving in the lower depths of the ocean, they might hear the sonar, feel spooked and surface so quickly that they get disoriented. The SURTASS/LFA sonar also poses a more long term threat in terms of dolphin, whale and porpoise social structures and breeding. 

Interestingly enough, the US Navy and the NOAA Fisheries agree with environmentalists about the threat to wildlife. Nevertheless, what brought this issue to court was the location in which the sonar technology has been used. Previously, it was permissible for the US Navy to use this sonar technology in areas where there was "no direct evidence of a marine mammal in the area."  The US Navy ultimately ended up using this sonar in places like the Galapagos Islands, where there is a huge amount of marine biodiversity. 

The recent court ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, CA is an important decision with regard to protecting and preserving the world's biodiversity of marine animals for now and in the future. 

Article written by Rajmani Sinclair on July 21, 2016