Environmental Groups Sue to Stop Global Deployment of Navy Low Frequency Sonar System

Groups Say New Long-Range Sonar System Threatens Whales and Other Marine Mammals

SAN FRANCISCO (Wednesday, August 7, 2002) -- A coalition of environmental groups today sued the U.S. Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service to block deployment of a new sonar system that poses a threat to entire populations of whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals. The coalition, led by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), filed the lawsuit in federal district court in San Francisco.

The sonar system, known as Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active sonar (or "SURTASS LFA") relies on extremely loud, low frequency sound to detect submarines at great distances. According to the Navy's own studies, the LFA system generates sounds capable of reaching 140 decibels more than 300 miles away. Scientists claim that, during testing off the California coast, noise from a single LFA system was detected across the breadth of the North Pacific Ocean.

"One of the truly disturbing aspects of this system," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of NRDC's Marine Mammals Protection Project, "is its unprecedented power and geographic scope. If the Navy deploys LFA, tens of thousands of square miles of ocean habitat would be saturated with extremely loud and dangerous sound. The Navy has illegally been given a blank check to deploy LFA in 75 percent of the world's oceans."

Over the last few years, scientists have been increasingly alarmed about undersea noise pollution from high-intensity sonar systems. There are two types of sonar: passive and active. Passive sonar listens for ambient noises in the water. Active sonar sends out a signal and waits for a response. Scientists are particularly concerned about active sonar, which has the potential to harm and even kill whales and other marine mammals.

The mass stranding of multiple whale species in the Bahamas in March 2000 intensified these concerns. Many of the beached whales died. A federal investigation determined that the strandings were caused by a U.S. Navy mid-frequency active sonar system. Meanwhile, a number of whales that lived in the waters off the Bahama coast disappeared. Scientists believe that they either abandoned their habitat or died at sea.

"From a scientific point of view, there is very little question that, given the right set of circumstances, active sonar can kill marine life," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society of the United States, one of the coplaintiffs. "The frightening thing about LFA is that we're flying blind, because the Navy has never seriously applied the lessons from previous strandings to its LFA system."

Today's lawsuit is a response to a decision last month by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with protecting ocean resources, to issue the Navy a permit allowing the global deployment of LFA. Attorneys for the environmentalists said today they would challenge LFA deployment under several federal statutes, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The plaintiffs in the case -- NRDC, the Humane Society, the League for Coastal Protection, the Cetacean Society International, and the Ocean Futures Society and its president, Jean-Michel Cousteau -- will seek a court decision before the Navy deploys the LFA system.

"The decision to authorize and deploy the LFA system cannot be justified under federal law," said Andrew Sabey, a partner with the international firm of Morrison & Foerster, which is representing the plaintiffs. "The National Marine Fisheries Service has issued the Navy a so-called 'small take' permit, which in reality authorizes the Navy to injure, harass and disturb marine mammals on a stunningly large scale throughout the world's oceans."

"The ocean is a precious resource shared by all the world's peoples," said Cousteau. "The LFA system poses an unacceptable risk to our oceans and our children's heritage."

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 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.