Sonar OK'd despite concerns for whales
By Marc Kaufman
The Washington Post
The Navy won approval yesterday to deploy two ships that use controversial low-frequency sonar to detect faraway submarines, despite continuing questions about whether the system's loud blasts will injure whales and other ocean mammals.
The ruling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants the Navy an exemption from federal rules that guard marine mammals from incidental injury. The agency concluded that protective measures required of the Navy will ensure that the effects of the sonar will be "negligible" and will not undermine the long-term health of whales and other ocean mammals.
Environmental groups in Hawai'i have protested the use of high-power, low-frequency sonar because of the possibility it will hurt cetaceans, including those in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Humpback calls are within the frequency range to be used by the Navy system, suggesting that the animals' hearing is attuned to sound in that range.
The five-year authorization requires the Navy to investigate unanswered questions regarding how the low-frequency sonar affects whale behavior, and whether it can silence the songs of large whales in particular. It also forbids the Navy from using the system when ocean mammals are within 1.1 nautical miles, since the force of the noise can damage their hearing and disrupt their activities within that range.
The decision was welcomed by those worried about how environmental and endangered-species laws have been affecting military preparedness.
"The monitoring will be extensive and research will continue," said Rebecca Lent, deputy assistant administrator with NOAA Fisheries. "The goal is to make sure that marine mammals are protected as much as (is) feasible."
The long-awaited ruling is not expected to settle the issue. Environmental groups have strongly opposed the low-frequency sonar plan, and Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council said his group is actively considering a lawsuit to stop it. The NRDC's protests helped stop the Navy's early low-frequency sonar experiments and led to the Navy's 1999 request for an exemption from the Marine Mammal Act.
In a commentary published last week in The Advertiser, Adm. Walter Doran, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, said Navy operations have been severely restricted by environmental regulations, to the point that some ships are operating in a state of "degraded readiness."
While not addressing the sonar operations specifically, Doran wrote that regulations restricting naval operations were based on a "precautionary principle" that presumes such operations are harmful to the environment. "Imagine that in this time of war, vital Navy training is being delayed, curtailed and canceled as a result of regulatory agencies invoking the backward 'precautionary principle,' " Doran wrote.
Advertiser science and environment writer Jan TenBruggencate contributed to this report.