Environmentalist step up campaign against Navy

The Associated Press
Friday April 27, 2001

SANTA MONICA — The Navy’s new low-frequency sonar creates an “acoustic traffic jam” that threatens the way whales and dolphins communicate, environmentalists claimed Thursday in a stepped-up campaign against the system. 

“If deployed, all species and marine animals could be affected,” said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Joel Reynolds. 

Reynolds was joined by actor Pierce Brosnan and other opponents of the sonar system in a press conference before the first of three public hearings scheduled by the National Marine Fisheries Service on the issue. 

The fisheries service will decide if the Navy should be exempt from environmental protection laws, which would give the military clearance to deploy the sonar system.  

The Navy has said its sonar, designed to detect quiet submarines by emitting sound waves at 180 decibels, does not pose a significant threat to marine life. 

But environmentalists are trying to convince the fisheries service otherwise.  

They say the sonar system harms whales and other sea creatures, and they want more research before the Navy should be allowed to move forward. 

“The effects of LFA (low-frequency active sonar system) might not be known for years,” said scientist Rod Fujita, who has worked with the NRDC on the issue. 

An environmental impact report commissioned by the Navy found that humpback whales stopped singing or extended their mating songs when exposed to the sounds.  

However, there were no biologically significant responses from the whales or the effects were temporary, said Lt. Jensin Sommer, a Navy spokeswoman. 

The study recommended limiting the use of the sonar in breeding areas, but it found no evidence that the sound leads to abnormal behavior. 

Environmental groups say the Navy has failed to demonstrate that the sonar does not cause whale breaching 

Reynolds said the sound waves can be heard hundreds of thousands of square miles away.  

That can disrupt whale communication, such as mating and feeding, and can cause the creatures to veer off their migratory paths. 

“We’re talking about an acoustic traffic jam that can lead to the extinction of species,” he said. 

The group charged that a different sonar system used during a Navy exercise off the Bahamas in March 2000 was responsible for the mass stranding of four species of whales and dolphins. 

“Sound is perceived physically in water,” said Naomi Rose of the Humane Society.  

“It causes the sheering of tissue and lungs. ... It’s like what happens when an opera singer shatters glass.” 

Navy scientists said the whale deaths in the Bahamas were linked to a mid-frequency sonar that has no correlation to the new system, which is less intrusive. 

The hearing in Los Angeles will be followed by one in Hawaii and Silver Springs, Maryland, said Kenneth Hollingshead, a biologist with the fisheries service. A decision is expected later in the summer. 

On the Net: 

Fisheries service: http://www.nmfs.gov 

U.S. Navy’s sonar program: http://www.surtass-lfa-eis.com 

NRDC: http://www.nrdc.org