Published October 14, 2008 09:20 AM

Supreme Court hears arguments in sonar case

Should the Navy be allowed to send a ship through the waters of the San Juan Islands using sonar loud enough to be heard miles away -- even in the presence of orcas whose survival depends on their supersensitive hearing?

That's what happened when the USS Shoup came through Haro Strait one afternoon, causing orcas to uncharacteristically huddle in a shallow cove and a minke whale to swim away erratically, observers said. And it's the kind of thing environmentalists, after citing the Shoup incident, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to limit Wednesday.

The Bush administration, though, saying there's an "emergency" need to provide seamen with hands-on training, challenged a federal judge's order forbidding use of the sonar within 1¼ miles of marine mammals in Navy exercises off the Southern California coast.

Sonar is "vitally important to the survival of our naval strike groups deployed around the world and therefore critical to the nation's own security," said Solicitor General Gregory Garre, arguing for the government. The administration says thousands of sailors' lives could be at risk from a single submarine attack.

The Southern California judge's order "seriously interferes with critical training exercises that the president (and) his chief naval officers have determined to be in the paramount interest of the United States," Garre said.

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