Court upholds limits on Navy sonar training

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LOS ANGELES, California -- The Navy must abide by limits on its sonar training off the Southern California because the exercises could harm dozens of species of whales and dolphins, a federal appeals court ruled.

High-powered sonar is banned within 12 nautical miles of the coast of Southern California.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday night rejected the Navy's appeal of restrictions that banned high-powered sonar within 12 nautical miles of the coast and set other limits that could affect Navy training exercises to begin this month.

Also on Friday, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a similar ban for that state's coastline.

In the California case, the appellate judges let stand most of a lower court injunction that set the limits, but altered two restrictions that the Navy argued could harm the readiness of its ships for combat.

Conservation groups that had sued to block the Navy's use of high-powered sonar said the decision was a victory for their side.

"The court is saying that neither the president nor the U.S. Navy is above the law," Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Saturday.

"The court found that the Navy must be environmentally responsible when training with high intensity sonar, and that doing so won't interfere with military readiness," he said.

The Navy has argued that additional restrictions would hamper its ability to train effectively.

"In ordering additional mitigation to reduce the risk to marine mammals, the order shifts the risk to sailors and Marines," Capt. Scott Gureck, a Navy spokesman, said in a statement responding to the Hawaii ruling.

Southern California's coastal waters are home to dozens of species of whales and dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Nine species are federally listed as endangered or threatened.

The appellate court said the Navy has acknowledged that high-powered sonar may cause hearing loss and other injuries to marine mammals. The 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.

The ban requires the Navy to limit the decibel levels of its sonar under certain ocean conditions and to stop using it altogether when a marine mammals is detected within 2,200 yards of a sonar source.

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