Suit Seeks Documents on Sonar Threat to Marine Mammals, Alleges Freedom of Information Act Violations
NEW YORK (June 1, 2005) -- The Bush administration is withholding a large quantity of evidence about severe harm caused to whales, dolphins and other marine life by high-intensity military sonar, according to a lawsuit filed today in New York federal court. Ocean mammals around the globe have been found dead or dying following the massive sonic blasts.
The lawsuit was brought under the Freedom of Information Act by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), a national conservation group. It seeks thousands of pages of documents related to mass strandings and mortalities of marine mammals exposed to military sonar. NRDC requested the material from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Department of Commerce more than a year ago, but so far those agencies have turned over only 12 documents totaling fewer than 25 pages.
Some of the documents withheld by the administration pertain to a recent mass stranding of whales along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which garnered national attention last January. No information from that stranding has been released to the public despite repeated requests.
"The Bush administration is sitting on box-loads of data that show the devastating impact of military sonar on whales," said Michael Jasny, a senior policy consultant for NRDC. "The public has a right to know what is happening to these majestic creatures, and the Bush administration is breaking the law by stonewalling."
The Navy's mid-frequency, active sonar systems generate sound of extreme intensity to locate objects in the ocean. Marine mammals have extraordinarily sensitive hearing, and there is no scientific dispute that intense sonar blasts can disturb, injure, and even kill them, according to NRDC.
"Whales exposed to high-intensity sonar have been found bleeding from the eyes and ears, with lesions the size of golf balls in their organ tissue. Biologists are concerned that the whales we see dying on the beaches are only the tip of an iceberg and that many more are dying at sea," Jasny said.
In recent years, there have been numerous mass strandings and mortalities of whales and other marine mammals associated with sonar use, including in the Bahamas, Hawaii, Washington State, and North Carolina.
A report concluding that the association between sonar and whale mortalities was "very convincing and appears overwhelming," was issued last year by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, one of the world's leading bodies of whale biologists. Even the Navy acknowledged that its use of sonar off the Bahamas in March 2000 resulted in the stranding of 16 whales of three species.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has been involved in many of the investigations into sonar-related strandings, but the Bush administration so far has not turned over the large quantity of information it possesses. NRDC's lawsuit asks the court to order the Bush administration to turn over all of the requested records.
NRDC has been a leader in uncovering information about the impact of high-intensity sonar on whales, dolphins and other marine life, and its expertise in the field is widely recognized. In 2003, NRDC won a groundbreaking lawsuit forcing the Navy to scale back deployment of a dangerous new sonar system that uses low-frequency sound waves that can travel thousands of kilometers. (Read the press release.)
Sonar is an acronym for "sound navigation and ranging."