Dolphins, whales likely to get added protections under court ruling

SEATTLE -- A federal court has sided with a coalition of environmental groups on three of eight legal issues that are likely to result in greater protections from Navy sonar for dolphins, whales, porpoises, sea lions, seals, and other marine mammals.

Following incidents where powerful Navy sonar harmed or killed marine mammals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such exercises must be further limited in scope and range. The National Marine Fisheries Service worked with the Navy to design an area and protocol to limit harm.

But several environmental groups filed suit claiming NMFS did not do enough to protect the endangered species as required by law, especially regarding use of the latest, most relevant science to help make permit decisions. The court agreed in several areas but not all.

The court will hear from NMFS, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Department of Interior, within 20 days regarding how it plans to rectify the use of the latest science in determining those safety protocols the Navy must use.

The environmental groups, including EarthJustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Friends of San Juans, and InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, are claiming victory despite losing on most of the legal arguments.

"This is a victory for dozens of protected species of marine mammals, including critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and porpoises," said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney representing a coalition of conservation and Northern California Indian Tribes. "NMFS must now employ the best science and require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to avoid and minimize harm from its training activities."

NMFS is preparing a comment.

The Navy's permit ends in 2015 but it's expected to re-apply for continued sonar warfare exercises that it insists are vital for military readiness.