Sonar Issue Heads for Federal Court Showdown

WASHINGTON, DC, June 16, 2003 (ENS) - A long awaited courtroom battle
will begin June 30 to determine whether the U.S. Navy can deploy its Low
Frequency Active sonar system, a new technology that scientists say
blasts ocean habitat with noise so intense it can maim, deafen and even kill
marine mammals.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is taking the Bush
administration to court over the sonar system. Last year the National
Marine Fisheries Service issued the Navy a permit to deploy the Surveillance
Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) Low Frequency Active (LFA) Low Frequency sonar over 75 percent of the world's oceans.

The NRDC says deployment of the sonar will harass or injure up to 12 percent of every single marine mammal species. Whales, dolphins and seals have
been using sonar for thousands of years for communication purposes and
echolocation. Echolocation works by the animals sending sonar clicks to
find their favorite prey species.

The U.S. Navy says the low frequency sonar booms are necessary to protect American ships and coastlines. Submarines are hard to detect, and the benefits include the ability to locate enemy submarines before they are able to launch any sort of attack.

Low Frequency Active sonar sends waves of low frequency sound or pings into
the ocean waters. If these pings intersect an enemy submarine, they will rebound back to the source ship. The ship that carries the sonar system will also have a towed passive sonar system to detect rebounding signals from submarines.

Since sound travels extremely well in water, these pings at the sound level of 235 decibels will travel across entire ocean basins. They are louder than the noise made by a jet takeoff which measures 150 decibels at 25 meters distance, enough to rupture a human eardrum. According to U.S. Navy documents, marine mammals will suffer harm when subjected to a sound louder than 180 decibels.

Conservationists and some scientists are warning that LFA sonar may threaten
the very survival of entire populations of whales. At close range, the system's shock waves are so intense they can destroy a whale's eardrums, cause its lungs to hemorrhage, and even cause death.

Two years ago, testing of a lower intensity Navy sonar in a mid-frequency range caused a mass stranding of whales in the Bahamas. Whales from three different species died, their inner ears bleeding from the explosive power of the sonar signal.

Last month, a group of biologists off the coast of Washington state witnessed a "stampede" of distressed marine mammals as a U.S. destroyer operating a powerful mid-frequency sonar system passed. Over the next several days, 10 porpoises were discovered stranded on nearby beaches.

The NRDC went to court on this issue last fall, and a federal judge blocked global deployment of the SURTASS sonar system until a full trial could be held.

"Just why is this LFA system being deployed? It is only useful in nuclear submarine warfare," said Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and an early member of Greenpeace.

"The Soviets are not a threat anymore," Watson said. "Terrorists do not deploy submarines. None of the so-called axis of evil nations have submarines. This is simply one of those pork barrel, waste the taxpayers money schemes, but this time with the potential for serious global destruction to the world's whales and dolphins."

Sandra Abels
Ocean Defense International