Sea Change for Sonar?

Barack Obama took office last January with a long to-undo list of terrible rules, decisions, and policies that the previous occupant (as Garrison Keillor might call him) inflicted on the environment.  A few of these terrible rules had to do with the Navy’s use of mid-frequency active sonar – a technology known to injure and kill some species of whales and cause widespread disruptions in many others.  As we reported one year ago, the Bush administration was doing its utmost to finalize the fed’s position on Navy sonar, in the form of three major rulemakings affecting most of the continental United States, before the torch was passed.

Change comes slowly, but sometimes it does come.  Today the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a new initiative that, at its core, is focused on identifying important marine mammal habitat where the Navy trains.  This is welcome news for those of us who have repeatedly sued the Navy and NOAA over their failure to keep any habitat off-limits to sonar use.

Here are some of the highlights of today’s announcement (available here):

  • NOAA recognizes that “ongoing mitigation efforts must do more” to protect marine mammals from sonar, in part because of the “difficulties of limiting the impact of active sonar where the mitigation efforts depend on visual sighting of whales.”  In other words: more must be done because keeping abreast of whales around a sonar ship (the Navy’s current practice) just doesn’t cut it.  Even making this basic acknowledgment amounts to a major shift in Bush-era policy, which insisted, despite abundant scientific opinion and court findings to the contrary, that the Navy’s measures were sufficient. 
  • The administration puts a great deal of emphasis on avoiding habitat: “Protecting important marine mammal habitat is generally recognized to be the most effective mitigation measure currently available.”  This is another important break with Bush policy, which gave the Navy carte blanche over hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, with few if any meaningful restrictions.  With this statement, NOAA has put itself in line with the prevailing consensus of the scientific community. 
  • Going forward, NOAA has committed itself to conducting a series of workshops to identify important habitat; to assess the cumulative impacts of sonar, oil exploration, and other sources of ocean noise; and to improve monitoring of marine wildlife on Navy ranges.  It also says that it will join negotiations between the Navy and NRDC over sonar mitigation – another welcome development.

So what does this all mean, practically, for the oceans?  NOAA is clear that the new information it hopes to glean on habitat and monitoring could translate into revisions of the Bush rules and into more (and more effective) protections for marine mammals.  Whether it will or not depends in part, of course, on the public, on the scientific community, and on NOAA itself, which has a clear mandate to protect marine mammals from sonar under federal law, but in the past has been bowled over by its more powerful sister agency. 

NOAA, under Dr. Lubchenco, has put a premium on “marine spatial planning” – a very promising form of ocean zoning that my colleague Sarah Chasis has written about before.  The administration’s efforts on sonar could dovetail nicely with its larger plans for the oceans.  So we’re hopeful (and engaged), but as with many of Obama’s environmental initiatives, there’s still a long road ahead.