Sometimes lasting change takes a lot longer than it should. Consider, for example, the U.S. Navy’s testing and training with heavy explosives and high-intensity sonar in species-rich coastal waters around the world.
Since 1994, the Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”) has prosecuted a series of federal lawsuits to persuade the Navy to adopt – and its federal regulator the National Marine Fisheries Service to require — common sense safeguards for the protection of whales and other marine life from unnecessary and avoidable harm. In none of these cases has a choice been required between training or not, between military readiness or not; in every case the choice presented has been training recklessly – in violation of federal law — or training in an environmentally responsible way.
With a groundbreaking settlement of two lawsuits this week, there is renewed hope that the Navy’s commitment to adopt significant new safeguards on two of its most important training ranges – in waters off southern California and Hawaii – could signal a fundamental shift in its approach toward wildlife conservation in the oceans in which it operates. For the first time, among other measures, the Navy has agreed to forego entirely or limit significantly its planned explosives testing and mid-range sonar training in designated areas of special importance to the survival of majestic blue whales, deep-diving beaked whales, critically endangered false killer whales, and other marine mammals needlessly put at risk by Navy training.
This agreement reflects real progress, with a solid commitment by the Navy to the most meaningful protective measures that NRDC and others, supported by the marine science community, have long sought. It is an important breakthrough in the Navy’s relationship to the oceans.
Why now? And what does this portend for the Navy’s willingness to adopt similar safeguards in its training elsewhere, in other ranges not covered by the settlement? According to a Navy spokesperson for the Pacific Fleet earlier this week, the Navy agreed to the settlement because it faced “a real possibility that the court would stop critically important testing and training,” needed to “prepare for missions in support of our national security.”
And, indeed, the Navy had reason to worry:
In a decision issued last spring in the cases settled this week, U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway rejected in no uncertain terms, under a number of environmental laws, the Navy’s position. She cited, for example, the Navy’s “total failure to clearly consider important information” and “flaws so fundamental that the [environmental planning] document needs to be totally rewritten.” Judge Mollway concluded that “the Navy’s categorical and sweeping statements, which allow for no compromise at all as to space, time, species, or condition, do not constitute the ‘hard look’ required” by federal law.
The Latest on: Sonar Safeguards
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The Latest on: Sonar Safeguards
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