SEATTLE — The U.S. Navy’s expanded use of sonar in training exercises along the West Coast will be reassessed after a federal judge found that regulators failed to consider the long-term effects of the ongoing activities on whales and other ocean life.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas wrote in a ruling Wednesday that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to consider the best available scientific data when approving permits for the Navy in 2012. Vadas determined the initial review process also improperly focused on a narrow window of time to gauge the potential effects.
Vadas said officials should consider longer-term effects when they reassess the permits.
The parties will now discuss the timing and scope of the effort.
Environmental groups celebrated the ruling. Steve Mashuda, an attorney at Earthjustice, said as officials return to account for the latest science and the longer scope, they will find that the original permits underestimated the number of animals impacted and the severity of those impacts.
“Once you acknowledge and recognize the greater harm from these activities, you’ve got to counterbalance that with greater protections,” he said. “The writing on the wall is that we need to do more to protect whales and dolphins from these activities.”
Environmentalists are advocating for more protections against the use of sonar. That could include geographic and seasonal limitations to protect areas that are important for feeding, migrating and breeding animals.
The permits authorized a five-year Navy plan for operations in the Northwest Training Range Complex. That area stretches from the waters off Mendocino County in California to the Canadian border.
A spokeswoman for the fisheries service said the agency was reviewing the ruling. A Navy spokeswoman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The court did not detail how broad of a timeframe officials should consider when reviewing the effects of sonar usage. But Vadas wrote that if the scope is limited to a five-year window, the less likely regulators are to find that the actions impact the viability of a threatened or endangered species.
“That is, a series of short-term analyses can mask the long-term impact of an agency action,” Vadas wrote.