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Global Deployment Of Navy Sonar
Natural Resources Defense Council
Conservation Groups Say Ruling Protects Whales And Other Marine Life
From Injury And Death
SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge ruled today that the Navy's plan to
deploy a new high-intensity sonar system violates numerous federal environmental
laws and could endanger whales, porpoises and fish. In a 73-page opinion,
U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte barred the Navy's planned around-the-world
deployment and ordered the Navy to reduce the system's potential harm
to marine mammals and fish by negotiating limits on its use with conservation
groups who had sued over its deployment.
The sonar system, known as Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low
Frequency Active sonar (or LFA), relies on extremely loud, low-frequency
sound to detect submarines at great distances. According to the Navy's
own studies, LFA generates sounds up to 140 decibels even more than
300 miles away from the sonar source. Many scientists believe that blasting
such intense sounds over large expanses of the ocean could harm entire
populations of whales, porpoises and fish. During testing off the California
coast, noise from a single LFA system was detected across the breadth
of the North Pacific Ocean.
"Today's ruling is a reprieve not just for whales, porpoises, and
fish, but ultimately for all of us who depend for our survival on healthy
oceans," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the
Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC, the lead plaintiff and counsel
in the case. "The decision recognizes that both national security
and environmental protection are essential. It recognizes that during
peacetime, even the military must comply with our environmental laws,
and it rejects the blank-check permit that would have allowed the Navy
to operate LFA sonar virtually anywhere in the world."
In her ruling, Judge Laporte found that a permit issued to the Navy
by the National Marine Fisheries Service to deploy LFA sonar violates
the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Endangered Species Act
(ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it did
not adequately assess or take steps to mitigate the risks posed by the
system to marine mammals and fish.
Judge Laporte found that, "endangered species, including whales,
listed salmon and sea turtles will be in LFA sonar's path. There is
little margin for error without threatening their survival?Absent an
injunction, the marine environment that supports the existence of these
species will be irreparably harmed."
In October, Judge Laporte granted a request by conservation groups for
a temporary injunction to restrict deployment under the permit. Today's
ruling orders the Navy to negotiate with NRDC and its co-plaintiffs
on terms of a permanent injunction that would limit where, when and
how the Navy can use LFA for testing and training. The injunction wouldn't
prevent the Navy from using the system during war or "heightened
threat conditions," as determined by the military.
Scientists have been increasingly alarmed in recent years about undersea
noise pollution from high-intensity active sonar systems, which have
been shown to harm and even kill whales and other marine life.
The mass stranding of multiple whale species in the Bahamas in March
2000 and the simultaneous disappearance of the region's entire population
of beaked whales intensified these concerns. A federal investigation
identified testing of a U.S. Navy mid-frequency active sonar system
as the cause. Last September, mass strandings occurred in the Canary
Islands as a result of military sonar, and in the Gulf of California
as the likely result of an acoustic geophysical survey using extremely
loud air guns.
Most recently, more than a dozen harbor porpoises were found dead on
the beach near the San Juan Islands soon after the Navy tested active
sonar in the Haro Strait in May. Videotape shows a pod of orca whales
in the foreground behaving erratically as the Shoup, a U.S. Navy vessel,
emits loud sonar blasts. Recent tests on one of the harbor porpoises
revealed injuries consistent with acoustic trauma.
"The science is clear -- intense active sonar can kill whales,
porpoises and fish," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist
with the Humane Society of the United States, one of the co-plaintiffs.
"The Navy must find ways to test and train with the LFA system
that do not needlessly damage marine life."
"The public has a strong interesting in minimizing, as much as
possible, any disruption or injury to these creatures from exposure
to the extremely loud and far-traveling naval sonar system," Judge
Laporte wrote in her opinion. "Public concern has been heightened
by incidents where exposure to another kind of Navy sonar has led to
lethal strandings of whales on the beach, as in the Bahamas in 2000."
"The court properly ruled that the permit to deploy the LFA system
violates federal law," said Andrew Sabey, a partner with the international
firm of Morrison & Foerster, which is representing the plaintiffs
NRDC, the Humane Society, the League for Coastal Protection, the Cetacean
Society International, and the Ocean Futures Society and its president,
"The marine environment is an invaluable resource that we all must
share," said Jean-Michel Cousteau. "I am very pleased that
good sense has prevailed. The court has taken an extremely valuable
step to protect a part of our life support system from destruction."
- The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization
of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting
public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than
550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington,
Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Copyright © 2003 Environmental News Network Inc.