High court sides with Navy on sonar use

These three right whales were spotted six miles off Hilton Head in 2007.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday might have torpedoed environmental opposition to proposed Navy sonar ranges off the East Coast.

The court cleared the way for the Navy to use high-powered sonar off the Southern California coast, saying it cannot be forced to turn it off when whales are spotted.

The public interest in training under realistic conditions outweighs the potential threat to marine species, the court decided.

The 5-4 ruling is specific to a single California training operation, environmentalists and a Navy public affairs officer said Wednesday.

But it has them evaluating the implications for challenges to sonar use off the East Coast, where the Navy is assembling environmental impact statements to get future training operations approved by federal environmental regulators.

The proposals include a massive sonar training range along the ocean bottom between North Carolina and Florida. The waters are the winter breeding ground for the almost extinct right whale.

Conservationists worry sonar could be deafening and frightening whales into lethal beach strandings and rapid surfacing.

"It's an important issue for national security," said Lt. Sean Robertson of Navy public affairs.

The ruling suggests that sonar-use opponents must prove the threat to marine species, and show that public interest outweighs the need for military training. That's a tough burden of proof, with the research still inconclusive about how much sonar harms the mammals.

Zak Smith, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica, Calif., conceded as much. But he said the presence of the breeding ground for the critically endangered right whale off the Southeast coast makes it a different matter of public interest.

"It's certainly not a good decision for us," said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the organizations that are fighting for restrictions on the Navy in training off the Southeast coast. But "I'm not sure it takes the Navy's duty of assessing the danger of sonar off the table."

Hamilton Davis, project manager with the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, which also has criticized the Navy's plans, said, "I do know we'll continue to take whatever steps are available, and hopefully get some mitigation for what's planned off the East Coast, to protect marine species at risk."

Robert Olsen, a recreational fishing charter captain in Charleston who has seen a pod of the rare right whales off the coast, doesn't have much doubt that the intensity of sonar used by the Navy affects sea mammals that use sonar echoes to navigate and communicate. He worries about the impact on the species. "That's how whales operate, and to bring in something alien like (high-powered sonar), the whales can't decipher it," Olsen said.

The decision gets to the heart of the complexity of the issue, and the need for more research, said Frank Blum, a Mount Pleasant commercial longline fisherman, S.C. Seafood Alliance director and military veteran.

"What do we do — do we save the world or do we set an example?" he said.