Whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions got a good break this week when a judge told a federal wildlife agency it's not doing enough to protect them from Navy war exercises along the West Coast.
That means the National Marine Fisheries Service will have to go back and reassess the permits it approved for Navy to make sure they comply with protective measures spelled out in the Endangered Species Act.
Here's hoping this ruling finally begins turning corner on a rarely discussed price that wildlife pays when the military conducts war games in the same waters where these marine mammals live.
The Navy uses a vast area of the West Coast, stretching from Northern California to the Canadian border, for training. Activities include anti-submarine warfare exercises involving tracking aircraft and sonar, surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises, air-to-surface bombing exercises, and extensive testing for several new weapons systems.
One of the biggest problems is noise, because these war games include underwater detonations, sinking of ships, gunnery exercises and active sonar.
The Navy sonar systems, for example, work like acoustic floodlights, sending out sound waves through ocean waters for tens or even hundreds of miles to find large objects in their path. But they are unbelievably loud: even one low-frequency sonar loudspeaker can be as loud as a twin-engine fighter jet at takeoff.
This onslaught of noise, which far exceeds the Navy's own safety limits for people, can have a devastating effect on marine species -- especially whales, who use their keen sense of hearing for almost everything they do.
Sonar can displace whales from their preferred habitat and disrupts feeding, breeding, nursing, communication, navigation and other behaviors essential to their survival. Most appallingly, sonar can directly injure whales -- very often killing them -- by causing hearing loss, hemorrhages and other kinds of tissue trauma, or by driving them rapidly to the surface or to shore.
The Navy's mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals.
In 2000, 14 beaked whales and several other marine mammals stranded themselves in the Bahamas in response to U.S. Navy vessels operating offshore mid-frequency sonar. Necropsies revealed bleeding around the animals' ears and brains. The entire Cuvier's beaked whale population disappeared from the area after the incident.
In 2003, 14 harbor porpoises were stranded during Navy sonar training in Puget Sound. In 2004, hundreds of melon-headed whales were driven into Hanalei Bay, Hawaii by Navy exercises.
And yet, what's troubling, is that the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service continue to push ahead.
The Fisheries Service earlier this year proposed to allow the Navy to harm marine mammals up to 9.5 million times in the Hawaii and Southern California Training Ranges and 21.8 million times in the Atlantic Training Range over a period of five years. This will surely result in thousands of cases of permanent hearing loss, lung injuries and death. Ocean noise is also known to harm fish; there have been reports of reduced abundance in areas with noise disturbance.
Separately, in March, the California Coastal Commission objected to the Navy plan for sonar and explosives training in Southern California that would threaten endangered blue whales and would have killed 130 marine mammals and caused permanent hearing loss in about 1,600 animals, according to Navy estimates. The Navy rejected the Commission's call to curb sonar.
Many of the species in harm's way with these military exercises are already struggling to survive, including blue whales. It's only getting more difficult for sea life to survive as the climate warms waters and pollution turns them more acidic.
The last thing they need is to have their homes bombarded by bombs, sinking ships and deadly blasts of noise.