The Justice Department on Monday asked the Supreme Court to review a federal appeals court decision limiting the Navy's use of sonar off the Southern California coast because of potential harm to dolphins and whales.
The Justice Department petition argues that the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco jeopardizes the Navy's ability to train sailors and Marines for service in wartime.
The agency also contends that national security interests can trump those of marine mammals, and that its use of mid-frequency sonar in training exercises hasn't caused any documented harm to dolphins or beaked whales in the waters where they're conducted.
"We believe that this is an issue that is absolutely essential to national security and that a Supreme Court review of this case is warranted," said Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Navy spokesman. He said sonar was the only way to detect quiet diesel electric submarines used by potential adversaries. The Navy has argued the restrictions could possibly prevent certification of some naval strike groups preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the Navy over the issue, contends that exposing dolphins and beaked whales to sonar can hurt them by disrupting their feeding and mating patterns and, in the worst case, can kill them by causing them to beach themselves.
NRDC attorney Cara Horowitz noted that lower courts had concluded there would be near certain harm to marine life in Southern California if the Navy went ahead with sonar exercises as planned. The appellate court said the Navy has estimated that its Southern California exercises would expose more than 500 beaked whales to harassment and would result in temporary hearing loss to thousands of marine mammals.
"That's why in our view it's critical the Navy take all reasonable steps to minimize harm to marine life as the lower courts ordered," Horowitz said. "We expected the Navy to seek review in the Supreme Court but we'd be surprised if the court agrees to take the case."