A federal court has ruled that the American government is failing to uphold its legal obligations to protect dolphins and whales from noise pollution produced by naval exercises in the Pacific.

Excessive underwater noise is a serious problem for cetaceans; as marine biologists say, "A deaf whale is a dead whale." Among the many sources of noise pollution is active sonar, which can impede cetaceans' ability to find food, communicate , and mate.

Now, as reported in On Earth (a magazine put out by the Natural Resources Defense Council), a federal court has ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to act in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, under which the National Marine Fisheries Service (a division of NOAA "responsible for the stewardship of the nation's living marine resources and their habitat") must review activities that could pose a threat to marine mammals:

Its review isn’t always satisfactory, though. In December 2013, the NMFS approved the navy’s five-year plan for sonar and ordinance use in the Pacific Ocean—even though the military’s own data showed that the activities would inflict harm on marine mammals 9.6 million times. The plan represented a 1,100 percent increase in incidents of harm to whales and dolphins.

The Navy says it has set aside a protected area for Humpbacks near the Hawaiian coast — a minuscule plot of sea measuring 3.1 miles in length. The Navy claims that additional restrictions would impede its operational abilities. As On Earth's Brian Palmer writes:

Federal Judge Susan Oki Mollway rejected the arguments made by the navy and the NMFS—and the language she used in her opinion verged on mockery in some places. When the NMFS said it would have come to the same conclusion even if it had used superior data, she dismissed this as an “it makes no difference” argument and accused the agency of offering “after-the-fact explanations.”

Over the next few months, Mollway will decide what the NMFS must do to achieve compliance with the law.

Read the rest of the article at On Earth.

[Via Smithsonian]

Image: Shutterstock/Igor Zh.