Navy Sonar, Cetaceans, and the Supreme Court: Fairfax County Public Attitudes and Potential Ramifications




Zirbel, Kylie E.

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Ocean noise is particularly problematic for marine wildlife in the Northern hemisphere. One source of anthropogenic noise currently impacting cetaceans in particular is military sonar. As a result, environmental NGOs have pursued a series of legal battles to test how much leeway the Navy has concerning exemption from environmental laws. The legal battle made its way to the Supreme Court in the case Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Ruling of the court suggests that the military is held to different standards when it comes to the implementation of federal environmental law. Public opinion on the impact of navy sonar on cetaceans and current policy has not been sought previously and since public opinion is a key force in the development and implementation of policy it could be a valuable asset to stakeholders to understand. In this thesis, I used chi-square tests to determine which demographic variables were correlated with how respondents felt about Navy exemption. I found that age, level of education, and ocean activity participation did not have a significant relationship with how respondents felt about Navy exemption. I did find, however, that individuals who were conservative, Republican, and have served in the military were more likely to believe the Navy should be exempt from marine mammal protection regulations. I was unable to test my hypotheses regarding race/ethnicity and environmental group membership due to insufficient data. My study was also designed to investigate the respondents’ understanding of sonar and its impact on marine mammals in order to support a more comprehensive study in the future. The results that I obtained were that a majority of my sample believe that Navy sonar impacts marine mammals. A majority of my sample also believe that moderating sonar use would be an appropriate action to take if Navy sonar does impact marine mammals. I also found that a large majority of my sample has never heard about the case Winter v. NRDC. I conducted expert interviews to determine the potential ramifications of the Supreme Court case. A few noteworthy points found in the expert interviews include that the case exerts federal power over state power; its legal precedent sets limitations to the use of preliminary junctions under NEPA; and that it is possible to reconcile national security efforts with environmental protection.



Navy sonar, Environmental policy, Cetaceans, National Environmental Protection Act, Supreme Court, Public attitudes