Federal Court Blocks Full Deployment of Navy Low Frequency Active Sonar System

Environmental Groups Hail Ruling as Crucial Step to Protect Whales and Other Marine Mammals

SAN FRANCISCO (October 31, 2002) -- A federal court today granted a request by environmental groups to block the Navy from deploying a new high-intensity sonar system that scientists believe poses a threat to entire populations of whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals. In a 58-page decision granting a preliminary injunction, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth LaPorte found that the National Marine Fisheries Service issued the Navy a permit that likely violates a number of federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

Scheduled for immediate deployment, 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.

"Today's decision is a crucial step to protect our oceans and, in particular, whales and other marine mammals that depend on hearing for their very survival," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Marine Mammals Protection Project at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the lead plaintiff in the case. "Deployment of LFA over 75 percent of the world's oceans -- more than 14 million square miles in the first year alone -- threatens marine life on a staggering and unprecedented geographic scale, not just the 'small number of marine mammals' that the law allows, but countless marine mammals around the world."

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 and the simultaneous disappearance of the region's entire population of beaked whales intensified these concerns. A federal investigation identified testing of a U.S. Navy mid-frequency active sonar system as the cause. Just a few weeks ago, in late September, new mass strandings occurred in the Canary Islands as a result of military sonar, and in the Gulf of California as the likely result of an acoustic geophysical survey using extremely loud air guns.

"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."

In today's decision, Judge LaPorte found that the "plaintiffs have shown that they are likely to prevail on establishing violations of the MMPA, NEPA, the ESA and the APA. They have also shown the possibility, indeed probability, of irreparable injury, particularly under the liberal standard applicable under these statutes. It is undisputed that marine mammals, many of whom depend on sensitive hearing for essential activities like finding food and mates and avoiding predators, and some of whom are endangered species, will at a minimum be harassed by the extremely loud and far traveling LFA sonar."

The plaintiffs in the case are NRDC, the Humane Society, the League for Coastal Protection, the Cetacean Society International, and the Ocean Futures Society.

"The ocean is a precious resource shared by all the world's peoples," said Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society. "The LFA permit is nothing less than a license to kill, and we are enormously grateful to the court for protecting 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.

Related NRDC Pages
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