The use of low-frequency active sonar (LFA) by the US Navy violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals. It was found to negatively impact whales, dolphins, and walruses - all animals who use sound to help find their way around the sea.
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The ruling said that the National marine Fisheries Services, who is the body that cleared the Navy to use LFA, has to be more proactive in avoiding the destruction of marine mammal populations and environments.
There hasn't been any public ruling about how this will change the Navy's policy, but it likely means that they will have to change the way they use sonar so that it doesn't harm animals.
"This systematic under-protection of marine mammals cannot be consistent with the requirement that mitigation measures result in the 'least practicable adverse impact' on marine mammals," the court said, according to The Verge.
As of right now, the LFA system uses 18 underwater speakers that puts out a low-frequency sound at 215 decibels. These tones last about 60 seconds. It might not seem like much, but the sounds can travel far and wide, causing stress to the animals and stopping their mating.
To be fair, the Navy has been working to avoid harming marine mammals. They turn off the sonar if animals are nearby and try to avoid "biologically important" areas.
While the US Navy wasn't technically breaking the laws, they weren't doing as much as they could to keep the sea creatures safe. So the new court ruling will set up rules and guidelines so that they can be safe. Those guidelines haven't been drawn yet, but they will likely be tough.
"But the improper positions it took in the present case - among them, the impossibly high burden of proof it put on science to justify mitigation - are by no means limited to LFA,"Jasny said in an NRDC statement.
"The agency has set a similarly high bar for habitat protection on the Navy’s offshore ranges, where the military trains with tactical mid-frequency sonar and with explosives; and the measures it routinely prescribes for offshore oil and gas exploration and offshore construction hardly recognise, as the court does for Navy sonar, the 'paramount importance' of habitat protection," he continued.
But this is not the first time that LFA has taken the Navy into court. As Jasny remembers:
"This is not the first time a federal court has ruled against the Service on LFA sonar. In 2003 (NRDC vs Evans) and again in 2008 (NRDC vs Gutierrez), the courts found that the agency’s mitigation measures had fallen far short of what the law requires. There, too, the Service gave the Navy worldwide clearance while refusing to protect areas that marine mammals depend on to feed, breed, nurse, and rest; and there, too, it tied itself in legal knots to do so."
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The hope is that everyone will be able to compromise so that the Navy can work and the oceans can be peaceful to all of their creatures.