The Case Against Navy Sonar Testing – Joshua Horwitz’ War of the Whales


The case against the U.S. Navy’s controversial use of deadly sonar testing activities, which causes substantial harm to marine mammals, continues in the courtroom today, with ALDF’s joint lawsuit against the U.S. Navy. Joshua Horwitz’ The War of the Whales explores this conflict between the safety of marine life and the Navy’s use of lethal sonar training exercises. It is also the true story of how two men took on the U.S. Navy’s best kept secrets: submarine surveillance and its impact on whales.

Most of what we know about whales and dolphins today, says Horwitz, comes from Navy-funded research dating back to the 1950s. “I call the book War of the Whales because the Navy pretty much single-handedly created the discipline of marine mammal science. There were no whale scientists to speak of. The only people who knew anything about whales were whalers—and they mostly knew which kinds of whales were easy to hunt.” The discovery of the ability of dolphins and whales to “echolocate” was paramount—with this discovery, however, came the Navy’s desire to reverse engineer this bio-sonar and the “acoustic mastery” of these marine mammals. The irony is that now the U.S. Navy harms animals while trying to reproduce their natural abilities.

“The Silent Service”

Submarine warfare is known as “the Silent Service” and depends upon stealth tracking. Horwitz explains, “The Navy has a tradition of secrecy, understandably, where all of their operations are classified. Every time I interviewed an active duty officer the Navy would have a public affairs person in the room. As you can imagine, that has a dampening effect on an interview.”

“My breakthrough,” Horwitz told ALDF, “came from speaking to retired Navy admirals—the people who achieve admiral status are the real leaders of the Navy. They retire at the peak of their powers and want to stay involved, and do so in backchannel ways in Navy policy and so forth. I found my way to these retired admirals, including one who was the former director of antisubmarine warfare at the Pentagon. These people want to be heard. And they have a lot more discretion of what they can talk about.”

Tracking enemy submarines plays a significant part of the Navy’s duties. Horwitz explains that “in the 1990s two different wars converged—the Navy’s attempt to train and recruit dolphins and small whales as combatants in war zones and to reverse engineer echolocation so the Navy could create their own dolphin drones and sonar systems, which ironically turned out to be lethal to certain kinds of whales. The other ‘war’ was the battle to save the whales, which grew out of this same movement.”

National Security vs. Animal Welfare?

The idea of environmental concerns vs. national security concerns is a false dichotomy, Horwitz says. “Number one, all of the lawsuits—including the current one that ALDF is party to—all they want to do is limit peace-time training and exercises. In a war situation… where Navy sailors and ships are under threat and attack, obviously the Navy needs to do what it needs to do to protect its people and protect the country. However, whales and dolphins shouldn’t have to die for practice. You don’t need to train in known marine habitats. That’s the position of NRDC and ALDF in this, and it’s a self-evident position.”

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) senior attorney Joel Reynolds and Navy veteran Ken Balcomb brought forth a lawsuit in the 1990s to compel the Navy to tell the truth about acoustic warfare activities. A lower court ruled against the Navy, but the Bush administration overturned that decision by executive order, claiming national security issues. NRDC did not give up and that case reached the Supreme Court in 2008. The higher court ruled that protection of the public interest came from “securing the strongest military defense rather than in enforcing marine mammal protection.” However, the case invoked further comprehensive environmental research on the topic. Thanks to NRDC’s lawsuit, such studies are required and often funded by the Office of Naval Research.

Devastating Impact on Marine Mammals

Research has increasingly shown that noise pollution has devastating impact upon marine mammals. For example, we now know the Navy’s testing exercises are causing whales to be confused and as a result they often end up stranded on beaches. Whale stranding, Horwitz insists, “is an ongoing problem the Navy would like us to believe has been solved, but in fact it is a recurrent issue.” Just this April, the U.S. Navy was implicated in a mass stranding off the southern shore of Crete.

Active sonar tests are the Navy’s attempts to take a sonogram of a body of water by introducing high-intensity sound waves. “These surface warships are pouring huge amounts of sound into a closed marine environment, which fills up with sound, continues to reverberate and becomes more and more intense,” says Horwitz. “These whales, who dive to depths of over a mile in these canyons, have nowhere to go to escape this acoustic storm… except onto beaches.” Nonlethal harms to whales—including to endangered species—include reproductive decline and changes to migratory patterns.

The Case Against The Navy

Why do these tests continue when we already know how harmful they are? For decades after the Cold War the Navy conducted these classified tests without going through the required permitting process. “By the end of the Cold War, in order to justify their budgets they had to become more transparent about what they were doing. Under compulsion from NRDC, the Navy started to apply for permits. For twenty years there have been legal challenges to those permits. The problem is there is an inherent conflict of interest—you have one small federal agency (National Marine Fisheries Service) regulating another federal agency, in this case the Navy, who has a multi-trillion dollar budget.”

NMFS is wildly understaffed and outgunned in political power. “When there is an ‘Unusual Mortality Event,’ which Fisheries is supposed to investigate, they don’t even have the resources to investigate the Navy. It’s inherently a conflict of interest. It’s also classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse,” Horwitz says. “They continue to give permits to the Navy, and that’s why the work of groups like NRDC and ALDF is so important: to keep large federal agencies like the U.S. Navy accountable to federal law.”

Along with the NRDC, the Animal Legal Defense Fund is currently involved with a similar lawsuit against the U.S. Navy for amplifying its sonar testing program. ALDF and NRDC allege that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) illegally granted the Navy permission to harm marine mammals nearly ten million times off the coast of southern California and Hawaii during the 2013-2018 “training” period. In the Navy’s own environmental review, the Navy estimates that sonar training, underwater detonations, and gunnery exercises will cause 9.6 million “takes” (or harms), 155 mortalities, more than 2,000 instances of permanent hearing loss or other permanent injury for dolphins and whales and millions of instances of temporary hearing loss. Endangered blue whales and beaked whales are at particular risk. This is more than a 1000% increase from the previous five year period—which was already under question by environmental and animal advocates in the lawsuit featured in War of the Whales.

Joshua Horwitz has worked for decades with humane, environmental, and animal groups—including ALDF—and is a book author and publisher (he is cofounder and publisher of Living Planet Books). For more information, visit

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