A humpback whale off at sunset in Hawaii.

A humpback whale off at sunset in Hawaii.

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway ruled Tuesday that the U.S. Navy vastly underestimated the threat to marine mammals by its use of sonar and explosives during training off Southern California and Hawaii. The lawsuit was aimed at curtailing Navy training from Dana Point to San Diego, off Coronado’s Silver Strand, and in the area between various Hawaiian islands.

The military exercises sometimes use explosives and ultra-loud sonar blasts, and scientists have linked these to mass whale strandings, exploded eardrums and death in sea animals. The Navy and Fisheries Service had acknowledged that sonar, explosives, and vessel strikes associated with military training exercises was causing thousands of permanent injuries to marine mammals, while millions more suffered minor or temporary damage to breeding, feeding, and other activities.

Much of the ruling deals with the dueling interpretations about how many animals over a five-year period of training would be hurt. The Navy asserts that training will kill 155 whales over five years. The environmentalists say the number of those killed or crippled would be much higher.

Judge Mollway’s ruling on Tuesday effectively invalidates a plan allowing the U.S. Navy to conduct war games that the government admitted would cause about 9.6 million instances of harm to marine mammals over five years. The ruling is also a significant victory for environmentalists and ocean advocates that will undoubtedly help keep thousands of animals out of harm’s way — and hopefully an important shift toward federal policies that ensure the price of national security isn’t paid by whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other animals that call these oceans home.

Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga said the service was studying the ruling and could not comment on its details.

“It is essential that sailors have realistic training that fully prepares them to fight tonight, if necessary, and [with] equipment that has been thoroughly tested before they go into harm’s way,” Matsunaga told the LA Times.

“The Navy has been training and testing in the Hawaii and Southern California ranges for more than 60 years without causing the harm alleged by the plaintiffs in this case.”

The Navy holds a major multinational exercise off Hawaii every two years, with the next exercise set for 2016. The Hawaii exercise and exercises off Southern California allow sailors to train in using sonar to detect submarines in shallow water, not unlike the conditions in the Persian Gulf. The ruling, subject to appeal, may mean that the exercises will need to be moved to other locations where damage to sea life would be reduced.

Smithsonian: Court Rules Navy Noise Causes Too Much Harm to Marine Mammals
OB Rag: Court: Navy Sonar Training Injures Whales, Dolphins and Other Sea Animals
Huffington Post: Whales, Dolphins Get a Life-Saving Break From Navy’s War Games