Groups Seek to Stop Navy from Blasting Marine Mammals with Sonar

New federal plan allows low-frequency active sonar use in nearly 75 percent of world’s oceans

LOS ANGELES (Oct. 18, 2012) – Marine mammals living in oceans spanning the globe will be at risk if the Navy is allowed to dramatically expand its use of low-frequency active sonar throughout the world’s oceans during training, testing, and routine military operations that began in August 2012 and are authorized to last to August 2017.  

A coalition of environmental and animal welfare specialists including the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Humane Society of the United States today filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California challenging the approval and use of this sonar by the U.S. Navy, the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Such expansion of LFA sonar would violate several federal laws intended to protect marine mammals and other marine life from such harm.

Following is a statement by Zak Smith, attorney with NRDC's marine mammal program:

“The Navy agrees that high-intensity military sonar can injure and kill whales, dolphins and other marine life, yet it is seeking to use low-frequency active sonar in 70 to75 percent of the world’s oceans. Knowing the extreme disturbance, possibly leading to death, this technology may cause species living in our oceans, this is too great a risk to take without analyzing and designating sufficient areas of the oceans that will be off-limits to peacetime sonar.

The Navy has been using this potentially lethal technology for years in small, discrete portions of the Pacific Ocean, knowing that it harms marine mammals.  It now seeks to expand dangerous sonar to three-quarters of the world’s oceans, while identifying less than two dozen small areas that deserve protection.”

About Low-Frequency Active Sonar

LFA sonar involves an array of eighteen loudspeakers lowered several hundred feet from a ship’s hull into the ocean.  Sound waves generated during one Naval test of the LFA system reached 140 decibels – an intensity more than 100 times greater than the level known to disturb gray whales – more than 300 miles from the source.  An independent analysis of some of the Navy’s data indicates that, during LFA tests off the coast of California, their signals were clearly audible at sites across the entire North Pacific.

There is continuing evidence that LFA creates a risk of widespread injury and disturbance to countless marine species and their habitat, through impacts that range from significant disruptions in critical behaviors like breeding, nursing, and foraging, to physical effects such as hearing loss, internal hemorrhaging, stranding, and death.

Because a single LFA source is capable of flooding thousands of square miles of ocean with intense levels of sound, the Navy and NMFS again concede that deployment of the system around the world will harm many thousands of marine mammals, including significant numbers of endangered species such as blue whales, humpback whales, sperm whales, and other species whose numbers are already depleted.

NRDC’s History of LFA Lawsuits

This lawsuit is part of NRDC’s ongoing campaign to bring the Navy’s training with LFA sonar into compliance with federal environmental law.  NRDC filed suit against the Navy and NMFS in 2002 when the Navy first sought authorization for its SURTASS LFA sonar system, and again in 2007: NRDC v. Evans, 279 F.Supp.2d 1129 (N.D. Cal. 2003), and NRDC v. Gutierrez, 2008 WL 360852 (N.D. Cal. 2008).  In both instances, the court granted NRDC’s motions for injunctions and the parties subsequently negotiated the terms of a Court order limiting the Navy’s use of sonar to discrete areas of the world’s oceans.

Other plaintiffs include The Humane Society of the United States, Cetacean Society International, League for Coastal Protection, Ocean Futures Society and its President Jean-Michel Cousteau, and Michael Stocker, a bioacoustician and director of Ocean Conservation Research in California.

Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Altshuler Berzon LLP and NRDC.