Former President Bush may have left DC, but his legacy to degrade national environmental laws and allow the military to circumvent marine mammal protection laws continues. I was disappointed today to see the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issue final rules on the Navy's use of sonar off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. The rules allow the Navy to expose millions of marine mammals to harm from naval training with high-intensity sonar. Today's action is a culmination of the Bush Administration's policy on sonar use and its lethal effects on whales and dolphins. Over the last few weeks, NMFS issued final rules covering sonar use in the Navy's Hawaii Range Complex, Southern California Range Complex, and now off the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. The rule covers the use of sonar over millions of square nautical miles of ocean, authorizing over 10 million marine mammal "takes" incidental to Navy sonar training during the next five years. Each "take" is an instance of harm caused by high-intensity sonar that can range from disorientation, to hearing loss, stranding and death.
For years the Navy has pushed the NMFS to accept its flawed environmental analysis, underestimating the harm sonar can cause whales and dolphins and discounting the long-term effect of repeated sonar use on marine mammal populations. NMFS, under the prior administration, continually refused to accept its responsibility to proscribe rules for the least possible harm to marine mammals. For example, while allowing the Navy to train with sonar throughout millions of miles of ocean, NMFS failed to set aside even one square inch of important habitat. With this final rule, completed in the waning weeks of the Bush Administration, NMFS once again turns away from scientific evidence and sound policy.
Under the new administration, NRDC will urge NMFS to reopen these last-minute rules so that entire populations of whales and dolphins can be protected from this harmful technology. To do so, NRDC must also counter the one-sided information perpetrated to the media. For example, today's Associated Press story on NMFS' action fails to report that nearly two million "takes" of marine mammals per year - 10 million over the course of the rule - was approved by NMFS for the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico final rule. The AP story unfortunately parrots Navy talking points on the adequacy of NMFS' protective requirements, neglecting to note that NMFS requires essentially nothing more from the Navy than what the Navy has traditionally been doing to protect marine mammals - measures that a court has already found "woefully inadequate."
Our work at NRDC is cut out for us. Not only will we urge NMFS to meet its obligations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act by reissuing these flawed rules - preventing the harm the previous administration leaves us with - but we will also remind people of the real harm sonar causes marine mammals, despite what they read in the paper.