U.S. Navy's Loud Ocean Sonar Draws Intense Objections

SILVER SPRING, Maryland, May 2, 2001 (ENS) - Tomorrow, the last of three public hearings will be held on the U.S. Navy's application for permission to "take" marine mammals during a five year deployment of low frequency active sonar (LFAS) in 80 percent of the world's oceans.

The hearing will take place at the Silver Springs headquarters of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The Humane Society of the U.S., Friends of the Earth, Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of the Wildlife, and the Natural Resources Defense Council will be there to object.

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U.S. Navy ship equipped with low frequency sonar (Photo courtesy Federation of American Scientists)
Low frequency active sonar is based on the fact that very low frequency sound [100-1000 Hz] can travel great distances and detect quiet submarines. The system uses intense sound. The Navy has given a figure of sounds as loud as 235 decibels generated by massive sound transmitters towed behind TAGOS-class ships. The noise level of a jet engine is about 120 decibels.

The Navy claims this technology is necessary to detect newer, more silent submarines. Yet critics say that advances in passive listening devices mean that the Navy can now rapidly deploy passive devices that can detect the same silent submarines.

A NMFS permit would allow the Navy to "take," defined as "harrass, injure or kill" marine mammals as a consequence of deploying the system.

Hearings took place in Los Angeles on April 26 and in Honolulu on April 28.

In Los Angeles, actor Pierce Brosnan joined with environmentalists, including Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Jean-Michel Cousteau of Ocean Futures, to oppose the sonar system.

Environmentalists are asking for congressonal oversight hearings into the Navy's entire antisubmarine warfare program, particularly the environmental impacts of the high intensity sonar systems. They are urging termination of all funding for low frequency active sonar.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, announced in Los Angeles that she expects a subcommittee on which she serves to hold oversight hearings later this year.

At an emotional hearing in Honolulu, the comments of 50 speakers ranged from technical criticisms of inadequacies in the environmental impact statement to spiritual presentations.

A representative of Congresswoman Patsy Mink, a Democrat, read a very strong statement opposing deployment, calling for further extension of the comment period, and calling for another hearing to be convened on Maui because she has been receiving hundreds of letters from her constituents there.

Hawaii attorney Lanny Sinkin opposes the sonar system and brought the lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service that resulted in this set of public hearings.

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Diver's light reveals humpback whale and her calf (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))
"The U.S. Navy's new low frequency active (LFA) sonar is a serious threat to the health of marine mammals, particularly whales, and other marine life," he wrote in an editorial in the "Honolulu Advertiser."

"A NATO LFA exercise in 1998 left numerous dead beaked whales on the coast of Greece. LFA testing off the Island of Hawaii in 1998 caused humpback whales to leave the test area, apparently resulted in separation of whale and dolphin calves from their mothers, and seriously injured a snorkeler in the water," Sinkin wrote.

Low frequency active sonar has been under development for more than a decade, and has been tested about 25 times over 7,500 hours in several oceans since 1988.

Sinkin points out that the Navy invested more than $350 million preparing to deploy low frequency active sonar before preparing the legally required environmental impact statement (EIS). "When the threat of legal action forced the Navy to prepare an EIS," Sinkin wrote, "the resulting document is, not surprisingly, designed to justify deployment rather than illuminate the truth."

But Vice Admiral James Amerault, deputy chief of naval operations, fleet readiness and logistics, testified March 20 before the Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support of the Senate Armed Services Committee on military readiness, said, "The $350 million Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) Low Frequency Active Sonar Operations sonar, an anti-submarine sensor system, already in use by Russia and France, has not been deployed despite the positive results of a two year Navy funded research project demonstrating the environmental compliance of the system."

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Navy personnel watch sonar screens (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
"There have been at least four lawsuits challenging the conduct of marine mammal research with SURTASS LFA sonar in the Hawaiian Islands," Amerault said. "To date, we have expended over $10 million in the collection of data and the preparation of a worldwide Environmental Impact Statement. We have engaged reputable marine mammal scientists nominated by the Natural Resources Defense Council to act as independent advisors and have included substantial mitigation in the deployment plan. Deployment of the system is still uncertain because of the likelihood of lawsuits, the non-concurrence of the California Coastal Commission, and NOAA Fisheries' unwillingness to provide a "take" permit for a large area of the eastern Pacific until California Coastal Commission concurrence is obtained."

In Honolulu, the hearing was conducted by Kenneth Hollingshead of the National Marine Fisheries Service who ruled that testimony on human injuries from sonar would not be relevant.

Sinkin challenged his attempt to exclude testimony on human injury on two grounds. First, if the technology is dangerous to humans, NMFS should take that into account in evaluating the Navy conclusion that the technology is harmless to cetaceans and other ocean life. Second, if the EIS contains false treatment of the evidence on human injury, as Sinkin claims it does, then the credibility of the EIS in its entirety is called into question.

The EIS excludes the statement provided in federal court during the Hawaiian litigation in which Dr. Kurt Fristrup, one of the scientists involved in the research, admitted that Chris Reid - the snorkeler traumatized by an LFA broadcast - had been exposed to a 125 decibel sound transmission. Excluding this evidence, the EIS concluded that there was no credible evidence that any human had been injured by a broadcast.

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Humpback whale breaches (Photo by Commander John Bortniak courtesy NOAA)
The spiritual presentations focused on the respect that should be shown for beings here far longer than humans, with larger brains than humans, with highly complex language that humans do not understand, and with capabilities that humans have not yet developed. That these creatures live in peace and harmony with their environment should be honored and protected, not studied to determine how much they can be disturbed to pursue human war follies, Hawaiian speakers said.

Although operations are based in Norfolk Virginia, SURTASS routinely operates from ports in Glasgow, Scotland; Rota, Spain; Yokohama, Japan; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Port Huneme, California; and many other ports of opportunity.

The deadline for filing comments with NMFS on deployment of the Navy's low frequency active sonar systems is May 18. Comments should be sent to: Donna Wieting, Chief, Marine Mammal Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910-3226. Fax: 301-713-0376. Reference Docket No. 990927266-0240-02.

For a technical discussion of SURTASS, visit the Federation of American Scientists at: http://www.fas.org/irp/program/collect/surtass.htm