Resolution is a Landmark in Protection of Marine Life

LOS ANGELES (October 28, 2004) Conservation groups praised a resolution approved today by the European Parliament, which calls on its twenty-five member states to stop deploying high-intensity active naval sonar until more is known about the harm it inflicts on whales and other marine life. The European Parliament is the directly elected body of the European Union, representing over 400 million citizens in Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Spain and other nations.

The resolution cites increasing scientific and public concern over a series of documented mass strandings and mortalities of whales following military sonar exercises. Noting a growing body of scientific research that confirms such sonar poses "a significant threat to marine mammals, fish and other ocean wildlife," the resolution calls on member states to establish a Multinational Task Force for developing international agreements on sonar and other sources of intense ocean noise; to exclude and seek alternatives to the harmful sonars used today; and to "immediately restrict the use of high-intensity active naval sonars in waters falling under their jurisdiction."

"This is a landmark in the international battle to protect marine life from needless harm and death caused by high intensity military sonar," said Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Protect at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "It is an unequivocal expression of the democratic will of the people of Europe, recognizing that nations can protect their own security and simultaneously safeguard the health of our oceans simply by using common sense steps to prevent injury from high intensity sonar during training and testing. We have a duty to protect marine mammals and other species, not only for their sake but for our own."

To address the proliferation of high-intensity sonar as a global environmental problem, NRDC last year joined with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Humane Society International, and Ocean Futures Society and its president Jean-Michel Cousteau, to press for international solutions.

"The increasing use of active sonar by militaries around the world threatens the survival of numerous marine species, including entire populations of whales and porpoises," said Frederick O'Regan, President of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "This is a global problem that must be solved through international cooperation, and the resolution adopted today by the European Parliament is a significant step toward that goal."

The European Parliament's resolution addresses both new, low-frequency systems, which are capable of spreading intense noise over vast distances of ocean, and the more commonly used mid-frequency active sonar systems, which are used by nearly 60 percent of the U.S. Navy's nearly 300 ships and submarines.

Mass stranding and mortality events associated with mid-frequency sonar exercises have occurred, among other places, off the coast of Washington State (2003), the Canary Islands (1985, 1986, 1989, 2002, 2004), the Bahamas (2000), Madeira (2000), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1998, 1999), and Greece (1996). According to an article in the scientific journal "Nature," mid-frequency sonar has been linked to injuries in whales suggestive of severe decompression sickness or "the bends," the illness that can kill scuba divers who surface too quickly from deep water. Many scientists are concerned that stranded whales represent only a fraction of those that are injured.

In July, the report of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) found "compelling evidence" that entire populations of whales and other marine mammals are potentially threatened by increasingly intense man-made underwater noise both regionally and ocean-wide. The IWC is the leading international body concerned with the conservation and management of global whale stocks. The report expressed particular concern about the effects of high-intensity sonar, noting that the association with certain mass strandings "is very convincing and appears overwhelming."

"Whales are majestic creatures and an integral part of the web of life," said Jean-Michel Cousteau, founder and president of Ocean Futures Society. "We have a duty to protect and preserve them for future generations."

NRDC won a groundbreaking legal settlement last year in which the U.S. Navy agreed to drastically scale back deployment of a low-frequency active sonar system capable of generating sounds up to 140 decibels more than 300 miles away from the sonar source.