Navy Sonar Exempted from Marine Mammal Protection Law

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2007 (ENS) - The Defense Department has exempted the U.S. Navy and its use of mid-frequency active sonar from the Marine Mammal Protection Act for two years, raising protests by environmental organizations that say the loud blasts of sound harm whales and dolphins.

The Navy’s position is that continued training with active sonar is "absolutely essential in protecting the lives of our sailors and defending the nation." Sonar is needed to detect increasingly quiet diesel-electric submarines that continue to proliferate throughout the world, the Navy said in a statement Wednesday.


Mid-frequency active sonar projects from a ship's bow. (Photo courtesy Whale Acoustics)
The Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, and other conservation groups are suing the Navy to stop its use of sonar. They maintaint that the high intensity, mid-frequency sonar "has been directly associated with mass strandings and other fatalities in marine mammals around the world."

Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at NRDC and director of its Marine Mammal Protection Project, said the exemption, "constitutes clear admission by the U.S. Navy that its current operations violate the protective standards for whales, dolphins, and other marine life under the Marine Mammal Protection Act."

"It’s not that the Navy can’t comply with the law; it’s that the Navy chooses not to," Reynolds said.

The pending lawsuit was brought by the NRDC, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau. It was filed in fall 2005 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, in Los Angeles.

Navy Rear Admiral James Symonds, director of environmental readiness, said, “The Navy has worked closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on our long-term compliance strategy, and the National Defense Exemption is an agreed upon part of the strategy. It allows both agencies to apply resources to the long-term plan."


U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James Symonds in 2005 when he was Capt. James Symonds, Commanding Officer of USS Ronald Reagan in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
"We will continue to employ stringent mitigation measures, developed with NOAA’s concurrence, to protect marine mammals during all sonar activities," said Admiral Symonds.

The exemption means that mid-frequency active sonar can be used on ranges off Hawaii, Southern California and the East Coast.

The sonar also can be used during RIMPAC 2008, the world's largest naval war games that take place in waters around the Hawaiian Islands, including the new Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.

Mass stranding and mortality events associated with mid-frequency sonar training exercises by NATO and the United States have occurred, among other places, in North Carolina (2005); Haro Strait off the coast of Washington State (2003); the Canary Islands (2004, 2002, 1989, 1986, 1985); Madeira (2000); the U.S. Virgin Islands (1999, 1998); and in Greece (1996).

One of the best documented incidents occurred in the Bahamas in 2000 when 16 whales of three species stranded along 150 miles of shoreline during a Navy exercise. The entire local population of beaked whales was never seen again.

The U.S. Navy later acknowledged in an official report that its use of sonar was the likely cause of the stranding. It appears that the whales were exposed to sounds in the range of 145 decibels, the loudness of a rifle blast.

In 2002, the Navy began implementation of what it calls a "comprehensive, fully funded strategy" to ensure the Navy complies with applicable federal laws.

The Navy says the two year limited exemption enables the Navy to continue execution of that plan which is being undertaken in coordination with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In 2006, an execution plan was finalized that will result in completion of full environmental documentation of all major Navy training and exercise areas.

"The process of completing this documentation, including the required analysis and public comment periods, is a multi-year effort. This limited exemption provides a bridge as this plan is executed," the Navy statement says.

The provisions of the exemption apply only during the period required to complete each area’s environmental documentation, the Navy explains. As each is completed, the exemption will no longer apply in that area.


Beached humpback whale in Alaska. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The Navy’s compliance plan will ultimately cover all major U.S. Navy ranges and operating areas with environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act, and any necessary letters of authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and consultation under the Endangered Species Act.

Navy policy mandates that all its ranges and operating areas be covered by overarching compliance actions by the end of fiscal year 2009.

Several of the operating area projects have Notices of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement already published in the Federal Register, the beginning step in the comprehensive procedure which will involve public participation.

Authority for the exemption was included by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2004.

But the NRDC's Reynolds says, "Whales and other marine mammals shouldn’t have to die for practice. The Navy has more than enough room in the oceans to train effectively without injuring or killing endangered whales and other marine species."

"Because the Navy trains with this dangerous technology in some of the richest underwater habitat on Earth, it is legally obligated to take simple, common sense steps to protect marine life," Reynolds said.

Reynolds listed preventive measures that the Navy has refused to accept.