Environmentalists sue to protect whales from Navy sonar

SAN FRANCISCO Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:37pm EST

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Environmentalists sued the U.S. government on Thursday over naval training exercises off the West Coast involving sonar that they say harms endangered marine animals in the Pacific Ocean including killer whales.

The lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, the latest salvo in a long-running dispute, seeks to prevent the U.S. Navy from performing the exercises in "biologically critical areas" during key hunting and breeding times.

Environmentalists say intense sound waves caused by the Navy's use of sonar can harm or kill endangered marine animals such as the killer whale and the blue whale.

"As part of these exercises, the Navy will repeatedly broadcast high-intensity sound waves into a vast stretch of ocean, containing some of the most biologically productive marine habitat in the United States," said the lawsuit, filed by a coalition of environmental activists led by Earthjustice.

The coalition is asking the fisheries service to reconsider a 2010 decision in support of the Navy's training exercises in waters spanning from California to the Canadian border.

"Whales and other marine animals don't stand a chance against the Navy," said Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

A U.S. Navy spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit. The National Marine Fisheries Service has not yet received any information on the suit, the agency's spokesperson said.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Navy, ruling that sonar training exercises off the Southern California coast could be conducted without restrictions designed to protect marine life, in a defeat for environmentalists.

"NMFS (the fisheries service) has failed in its duty to assure that the Navy is not pushing the whales closer to extinction," said Marcie Keever, legal director of Friends of the Earth, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.

(Reporting By Dan Levine and Malathi Nayak; Editing by Mary Slosson and Cynthia Johnston)

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