The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision today ruled that the Navy does not have to consider the effect of sonar on whales when training with sonar off the coast of California. "The Court does not question the importance of plaintiffs' ecological, scientific and recreational interests, but it concludes that the balance of equities and consideration of the overall public interest tip strongly in favor of the Navy," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. "The determination of where the public interest lies in this case does not strike the Court as a close question."

Environmentalists, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued to stop the sonar exercises, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) charged that the high-intensity mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar blankets vast areas of the ocean with noise pollution, causing whales, including endangered beak whales, to beach and/or die. The Navy does not dispute the potential danger to the mammals, acknowledging in its own environmental assessments that the sonar may permanently damage as many as 500 whales and temporarily deafen at least 8,000 whales.

A lower court had imposed six injunctions on the Navy when using such sonar, including shutting it down when marine mammals are within 2,200 yards or when on the surface, a 12-mile no-sonar buffer zone off the coast of California and routine monitoring for marine mammals. NRDC senior attorney Joel Reynolds notes that the decision only obviates the need for the Navy to shut down such sonar but left in place the other protections.

The Navy also reached an agreement in September 2007 with a host of environmental groups to confine even more damaging low-frequency active (LFA) sonar—which remain strong for at least 300 miles and can be detected across entire oceans—to certain regions of the North Pacific.

"It does not need to be an either/or scenario when it comes to ensuring our country is secure and our marine wildlife is protected," says IFAW lawyer Nathaniel Wechsler "Our military can protect endangered species and meet our nation's security needs at the same time."

Credit: © Klaus Larsen/