Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on January 14, 2013 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Efforts to protect whales don’t stop at the border

Margot VentonLawyer

The ocean is a dark environment.

While animals that live on land often rely on their sense of sight for survival, marine mammals like whales depend heavily on their ability to hear. Marine life such as whales have evolved to take full advantage of the fact sound travels easily through the ocean, relying on songs and echolocation as their primary means of communication and locating prey,

Unfortunately, the ocean is also an increasingly noisy environment, which is bad news for whale populations. It’s estimated that underwater noise levels in the world’s oceans have increased an average of 15 decibels during the past 50 years, largely as a result of increased shipping traffic.

Acoustic disturbance or noise pollution can stress, injure and in some cases, kill whales. Chronic noise can also damage their hearing, compromising their ability to hunt and communicate — a whale that loses the ability to hear will inevitably die of that injury.

That’s why our clients Georgia Strait Alliance, Wilderness Committee, David Suzuki Foundation and Raincoast Conservation — organizations long-committed to conserving Canada’s marine species — will appear before the U.S. District Court in a case about ocean noise. Later this year, that Court will consider a lawsuit over the U.S. Navy’s plans to conduct training exercises in the Northeast Pacific. These exercises include sonar testing, in which high-intensity sound waves will be repeatedly broadcast into a vast stretch of the Pacific Ocean roughly equal to the size of the state of California.

Our clients will provide the Court with information about Canadian efforts to protect five whale species that will be affected by the Navy’s training exercises. The five species — the southern resident killer whale, and the humpback, blue, fin and sei whales — are transboundary species, meaning that the whales and their habitat cross the border between Canada and the U.S. All five are also listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Acoustic disturbances, including those caused by use of military sonar, are a threat to the recovery of these five whale species. Environmental assessments conducted by the U.S. government have made it clear that the Navy’s training exercises will harass marine mammals, including whales, disrupting their migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, and sheltering, and cause temporary hearing loss in species that depend on sound for their reproduction and survival.

The need to protect the critical habitat of these killer whales was the subject of Ecojustice’s long-standing, successful litigation efforts in Canada, which resulted in the Canadian courts confirming that all aspects of the killer whales’ critical habitat — including acoustic quality — must be protected by law.

In particular, the noisy naval exercise will affect the southern resident killer whales, which under SARA, are legally protected from noise pollution in the Canadian portion of their critical habitat.

By participating in the U.S. lawsuit, our clients hope to show that U.S. military activities have environmental impacts extending beyond the American border: Harming whales in U.S. waters also impairs the survival and recovery of Canada’s endangered and threatened species.

A special thank you goes out to Debbie Sivas, Director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School, for her invaluable assistance as local counsel for our clients in California.

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