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Navy Use of Sonar OKd Despite Risk to Whales

Military: Some scientists say safety features in the submarine-detection system aren't enough.

July 16, 2002|KENNETH R. WEISS and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Bush administration on Monday gave the Navy permission to "harass" and potentially injure whales, if necessary, in conducting exercises with a powerful new sonar to hunt for super-quiet submarines.

The Navy asserts that no whales will be killed by the intense underwater noise because of elaborate safety precautions. But scientists and environmentalists worry that marine mammals, especially those that slip undetected into the safety zone around the sonar equipment, could suffer life-threatening injuries.

Navy officials say the sonar system is needed to protect U.S. warships--particularly aircraft carriers--from a new breed of diesel submarines. Advances in stealth technology by German, French, Swedish and Russian manufacturers have led to submarines that can barely be heard, officials said.

In granting the go-ahead, the National Marine Fisheries Service of the Commerce Department agreed to exempt the low-frequency sonar system from the Marine Mammal Protection Act after determining that it would have a "negligible impact" on any species.

The decision came after years of internal debate and a startling study that blamed another Navy sonar system for inner-ear bleeding, other injuries and disorientation that drove 16 whales to beach themselves in the Bahamas. Scientists are not sure whether most or all of the whales died.

To prevent injury to whales or dolphins, the Fisheries Service is requiring the Navy to stay at least 12 miles offshore when operating at full volume, and to take other precautions to make sure no protected sea creatures come in harm's way.

"The Navy has to shut down the system if any marine mammals or turtles are detected within two kilometers," said Rebecca Lent, deputy assistant administrator for national marine fisheries. The goal, she said, "is to make sure the marine mammals are protected to the greatest extent feasible."

Other safety precautions include avoiding areas frequented by scuba divers, who can also be hurt, restricting the sonar's frequency to minimize potential damage to the ears and tissue of whales and avoiding well-known whale feeding and breeding areas around Antarctica, Hawaii and Costa Rica.

Some scientists and environmentalists were troubled by Monday's approval, contending that the science is too sketchy for predicting whether the mitigation measures will actually work.

"It's a case of painting the toenails of the elephant," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "You still have the elephant: a very, very loud system operating on a global scale with very little environmental oversight."

Reynolds, who has sued the Navy over related sonar issues, is considering a lawsuit to stop the use of low-frequency sonar.

The Navy issued a statement that it was "pleased" with the ruling. For years, the Navy has sought the flexibility to move closer to shore with its low-frequency sonar, initially conceived during the Cold War to hunt for Soviet submarines in the deep ocean.

"The technological advantage that we had in the Cold War has diminished," said Jim Kadane, program director for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the San Diego office of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

Third World countries, unable to afford aircraft carriers and fighter-planes, have been buying submarines capable of sinking U.S. ships. "The submarine, more and more, is the weapon of choice" for the Third World, Kadane said.

So far, the Navy has only one ship equipped with the low-frequency array. It plans to resume exercises this fall in the Western Pacific "thousands of miles from California," said Joe Johnson, program manager for the Navy's environmental review. He declined to pinpoint the location, saying it could compromise national security.

For now, the Navy cannot operate the low-frequency sonar off California because it has not yet passed muster with the California Coastal Commission.

The Navy has received clearance from 23 other coastal states, a spokesman said, but has not yet sought approval from California's commission, arguably the toughest environmental hurdle, until it completes its operational plans.

The sonar system, called the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System, consists of 18 speakers pulled behind a Navy ship on cables hundreds feet long. The speakers can emit low-frequency waves up to 230 decibels. That would be roughly like standing next to a jumbo jet at takeoff. Such active sonar can be compared to a floodlight, sending a sound wave burst to "light up" enemy submarines with an echo.

Low-frequency waves travel great distances in the ocean before stopping and are far more effective at spotting submarines than passive listening devices.

Their power and reach is precisely what concerns many whale and acoustic experts, who have spent the last two years investigating the whale deaths in the Bahamas in March 2000.

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