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Navy Sonar System  

Threatens Whales

by The National Resources Defense Council



The U.S. Navy wants to flood the world's oceans and coastal waters with sonar technology that deafens -- and kills -- whales and other marine mammals.


Researchers have found that many humpback whales cease singing when exposed to                   © Bill Lawton / NMML

an LFA sonar signal that is hundreds of miles distant.

Around the globe, nations are testing and beginning to deploy "active sonar" technology, which uses extremely loud sound to detect submarines. The problem? Active sonar can injure and even kill marine mammals. It has been conclusively linked to the deaths of seven whales in the Bahamas in March 2000; that stranding is only one of a mounting number of similar events.

The U.S. Navy has led the push toward use of active sonar. In full knowledge of the disastrous effects that active sonar's intense noise may have on whale populations all over the world, the Navy has also conducted testing in complete secrecy and has consistently evaded and violated environmental law.


In July 2002, despite strong concerns from many leading scientists, the Bush administration issued a long-sought permit allowing the Navy to use the biggest gun in its active-sonar arsenal, the SURTASS LFA system, in as much as 75 percent of the world's oceans. NRDC filed a lawsuit to stop deployment of the system, and in October 2002 won a preliminary injunction against broad deployment of the LFA system. The judge held that the administration's permit to deploy LFA likely violates a number of federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The judge also agreed that the science clearly demonstrates "the possibility, indeed probability, of irreparable injury" to marine mammals should LFA sonar be deployed widely.

NRDC litigators will soon face off with the Bush administration in federal court to determine whether this dangerous technology is finally unleashed upon entire populations of whales and other marine mammals -- or whether it should be permanently blocked until the Navy obeys the law and demonstrates that LFA will not cause serious harm to ocean life.

The Bahamas Whale Deaths

Of the 13 beaked whales that stranded in the Bahamas in March 2000 after exposure to active sonar, seven died, including this one.

In March 2000, four different species of whales and dolphins were stranded on beaches in the Bahamas after a U.S. Navy battle group used active sonar in the area. Despite efforts to save the whales, seven of them died. The Navy initially denied that active sonar was to blame, but its own investigation later found hemorrhaging around the dead whales' eyes and ears, indicating severe acoustic trauma. The government's study of the incident established with virtual certainty that the strandings in the Bahamas had been caused by mid-frequency active sonar used by Navy ships passing through the area. Since the incident, the area's population of beaked whales has disappeared, leading researchers to conclude that they abandoned their habitat or died at sea. Scientists are concerned that, under the right circumstances, even the transient use of high-intensity active sonar can have a severe impact on populations of marine mammals.

Now the Navy is preparing to deploy an active sonar system that is potentially even more dangerous than the one that killed the whales in the Bahamas. This system, called Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar (or "LFA," for short), produces powerful waves of energy that can spread across hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean. Even the Navy has conceded that the use of this system world-wide could harm many thousands of marine mammals, including significant numbers of species such as blue whales, humpback whales and sperm whales, which are already considered endangered..

According to the Navy, LFA sonar functions like a floodlight, scanning the ocean at vast distances with intense sound. Each loudspeaker in the system's long array can generate 215 decibels of sound. Worse yet, not far from the array the signals begin to combine, and the result as the signals travel can be as forceful as 240 decibels transmitted at the source. (To understand just how powerful these sounds are, keep in mind that the decibel scale used for measuring noise is like the Richter scale used for measuring earthquakes: both use small differences to express increasing orders of magnitude.) One hundreds miles from the system, the sound level would be from 150 to 160 decibels, still loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage in humans.

The Navy asserts that it will take precautions to make sure that whales or dolphins are not harmed by the use of LFA sonar, but many scientists say that too little is known about the effects of intense noise on marine mammals to support such a claim.

Immersed in Sound

Whales use their exquisitely sensitive hearing like humans use their eyes -- their hearing helps them follow migratory routes, locate one another over great distances, find food, and care for their young. Noise that undermines their ability to hear can threaten their ability to function and survive. As one scientist succinctly put it: "A deaf whale is a dead whale." But what concerns marine scientists even more than short-term effects on individual animals is the potential long-term impact that the Navy's LFA system might have on the behavior and viability of entire populations of marine mammals.

Sound has been shown to divert bowhead and gray whales and other whales from their migration paths, to cause sperm and humpback whales to stop singing, and to induce a range of other effects, from distressed behavior to panic. A mass stranding of beaked whales off the west coast of Greece in 1996 was been associated with an active sonar system being tested by NATO. And the mass mortality of whales in the Bahamas only confirm the risks.

A Poor Track Record of Environmental Stewardship

LFA sonar was a Navy secret until 1994, when NRDC began investigating rumors that sound experiments were taking place off the California coast. Despite the Navy's stonewalling, it soon became clear that the Navy had already field-tested LFA sonar in 22 operations -- but had never studied its effects on marine life. Caught in violation of federal and state environmental law, the Defense Department agreed to conduct a full-scale study of environmental impacts and disclose how the sonar would affect marine mammals, sea turtles and other ocean species before putting the LFA system into use.

The Navy released a final Environmental Impact Statement in 2001, but it was disturbingly limited. Legally required to be a "rigorous and objective evaluation" of environmental risks, the study failed to answer the most basic questions about its controversial system: How will LFA affect the long-term health and behavior of whales, dolphins and hundreds of other species? Taking place as it does over an enormous geographic area, what effect might it have on marine populations?

The New Threat to Coastal Waters

In recent years, NRDC has found that the Navy is continuing its troubling pattern of noncompliance with our nation's environmental laws. It has been testing new high-intensity active sonar systems in coastal waters -- areas of immense biological productivity that also happen to be crucial habitat for marine mammals -- again without conducting meaningful review of the technologies' environmental impacts and without meeting other basic requirements set forth in our environmental laws.

This new program, called Littoral Warfare Advanced Development, or LWAD, aims to bring active sonar from the depths of the ocean to thecoasts. Among the systems being tested is an adaptation of the very same mid-frequency active sonar system responsible for the mass stranding in the Bahamas. NRDC is especially alarmed by the use of these systems in shallow coastal waters where there is greater potential for strandings of whales; our lawsuit, brought in the fall of 2001, is pending.

An End Run Around Environmental Laws

Sadly, the October 2002 injunction against broad use of LFA sonar was a short-lived reprieve for the world's oceans. Stymied by the law, the Department of Defense is now pursuing an outright end-run around the courts -- and the nation's environmental laws. Congress is now considering a Bush administration proposal to grant continuous, across-the-board exemptions for the Department of Defense from the laws that protect our air and water, clean up our toxic waste and conserve our most endangered species. These exemptions are being pursued even though current law provides for the waiving of environmental rules for reasons of national security.

For marine mammals, such blanket exemptions could be disastrous. The likely result of these dramatic changes would be weaker legal protection, less mitigation of the harm caused by military activities such as LFA sonar, and less information for the public. (For more information, see this broad backgrounder on the Defense Department's requests for exemptions from environmental laws, or this detailed analysis of the proposed amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.)

Send a message telling your senators and representative that national defense shouldn't come at the expense of what the military is supposed to be defending, and that when national security is not at stake, no government agency should be above the law. ACT NOW!

A Crucial Moment for the World's Marine Mammals

The U.S. Navy's active sonar systems have the potential to hurt whale populations across the world. They also represent a dangerous escalation in the proliferation of noise throughout the world's oceans -- whales are only one kind of marine life that evolved over millennia to depend for their survival on their ability to hear and be heard. Now, with the noise generated by offshore oil and gas development, shipping traffic, and the Navy's new sonar technologies, the oceans can be as loud as Times Square at rush hour.

NRDC's efforts to bring attention to the serious risks of active sonar are aided immensely by the tens of thousands of messages our members and other activists have sent, demanding that active sonar not be used until the long-term safety of ocean wildlife can be assured. Please continue to help us keep the pressure on the Navy to meet its environmental obligations.


The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and 

                     San Francisco.


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