- SAN FRANCISCO - Environmental
groups filed suit yesterday to stop the Navy from using a powerful new
sonar system for detecting enemy submarines, saying the intense underwater
sounds can harm whales and dolphins.
- The coalition, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council,
sued the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service in U.S. District
Court in San Francisco to prevent use of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor
System Low Frequency Active sonar.
- In July, the fisheries service gave the Navy a five-year
exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which protects whales
- "Despite the public and scientific outcry, the National
Marine Fisheries Service, under whatever pressure, has licensed the U.S.
Navy to basically break the law. It is a license to kill," said Jean-Michel
Cousteau, founder and president of Ocean Futures Society, a member of the
- Gordon Helm, spokesman for the fisheries service, said
the agency has required the Navy to comply with some restrictions, such
as not using the sonar within 12 nautical miles of the coast. Use is also
prohibited within 1.1 nautical miles of ocean animals and within biologically
important areas for marine mammals.
- Though the exemption runs for five years, the authorization
is subject to yearly review. The Fisheries Service and the Navy will also
conduct research on the effects of the sonar. The permit can also be immediately
- Helm said the requirements would minimize the system's
effect on animals. "We consider that to be negligible. If we find
out differently we can halt the authorization," Helm said.
- Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Pauline Storum said yesterday
the Navy has spent $10 million researching and developing guidelines that
will protect marine mammals while giving the military the ability to track
- "We are disappointed that some groups refuse to
accept scientific, peer-reviewed findings and instead rely on misinformation
and unrelated facts to try to prevent the use of this system," Storum
- The Navy said in July that the $300 million system is
important to national security because nations such as Russia, Germany
and China are developing super-quiet submarines to avoid traditional detection
- The sonar, which was developed in the 1980s, can listen
and broadcast sounds. The system issues one ping, varying in length from
60 to 100 seconds, every 12 minutes in search of possible foes. Navy officials
say it can detect ships 10 times farther away than current sonar systems.
- At present there is only one ship equipped with the technology
and it is currently in the Far East, Storum said. A second ship , slated
for use in the Atlantic Ocean, will not come online until next year, she
- The lawsuit said the Navy's own studies show the new
sonar system generates sounds up to 140 decibels that can be detected more
than 300 miles away.
- Opponents of the sonar say they fear sound that loud
can disrupt marine mammals' feeding, breeding, nursing, communication and
other behavior. Many large whales, such as fin and humpback, communicate
at the same frequency as the Navy sonar. The Navy study says about 1.77
percent of fin and 7.12 percent of humpback whales in the Western North
Atlantic could be affected by sonar.
- "The organisms we're talking about have in their
heads a system for seeing with sound that's just as good as our system
for seeing with light," George Woodwell, director of Woods Hole Research
Center, said of whales and dolphins. "If we flood the oceans with
sound that has enormous energy, we're killing them."
- Environmentalists note that within hours after the Navy
deployed powerful mid-range sonar during a submarine detection exercise
near the Bahamas in 2000, at least 16 whales and two dolphins beached themselves.
Scientists found hemorrhaging around the brain and ear bones - injuries
consistent with exposure to extremely loud sounds. Eight whales died.
- Those deaths, however, were related to mid-range sonar,
not the low-frequency sonar that was approved by the Fisheries Service.
- The Navy sonar in question has not been used since 1998
in part because of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which in 1995
discovered the Navy using the technology off the California Coast. The
group pushed for an environmental study, which the Navy agreed to do, NRDC
Senior Political Analyst Michael Jasny said yesterday.
- The Fisheries Service approval is the culmination of
environmental assessments and public comment, which began in 1999, Fisheries
Service spokeswoman Connie Barclay said.
- Jasny said more could have been done, especially when
it came to evaluating alternative technology. He said advances in passive
technology could have been better explored by the Navy.
- "They are legally obligated to look at all reasonable
alternatives," Jasny said. "We have expressed some degree of
skepticism about its utility."
- The Humane Society of the United States, the League for
Coastal Protection and the Cetacean Society International also are plaintiffs
in the suit.