In a case of national security once again trumping the environment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on November 12, 2008 that the U.S. Navy could continue using high-powered sonar as part of its training exercises, possibly at the expense of whales and other marine mammals. This decision was made in a case of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) versus the Navy regarding the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises in southern California. The sonar is used to detect enemy ships, and the Navy argued that the sonar is needed to effectively train and protect the nation.
The decision overturns one made earlier in the year by a federal judge in Los Angeles that was upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco that required the Navy to suspend the use of sonar if it detected a marine mammal within 2,200 yards, and when sea conditions allowed the sonar to travel farther than usual.
The NRDC argued that even the Navy said that an estimated 170,000 marine mammals could be harmed by the exercises, with more than 500 suffering permanent injury. While the effects of sonar have only recently been studied in earnest, there are multiple cases illustrating its graphic effects on whales, including mass strandings in the Canary Islands, Hawaii and North Carolina.
Examinations of stranded whales show evidence of hearing damage, internal bleeding, and symptoms similar of the "bends" that human divers experience when ascending from dives too rapidly. Since whales rely heavily on their hearing and making sounds to communicate, navigate, mate and find prey, even if they aren't injured by sonar, that sonar can disrupt their ability to survive.
On its web site, the NRDC points out that it doesn't mean for the Navy to halt its exercises altogether, just to conduct them responsibly. Since many marine mammals are migratory and our oceans are so huge, it seems like it wouldn't be that difficult to find a better time and place for the Navy to train. This fight likely isn't over, as the decision doesn't bind the new Obama administration to uphold the same policy.