Last Minute Rules Expose Millions of Marine Mammals to Sonar Harm

New Rules Endanger Whales and Dolphins and Fail to Satisfy Federal Law

LOS ANGELES (January 23, 2009) – Last-minute rules proposed by the Bush administration will expose millions of marine mammals to harm from naval training with high-intensity sonar unless amended by the Obama Administration. The rules, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), address Navy sonar training in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, in waters off Southern California, and around Hawaii. Together, they authorize over 10 million marine mammal “takes” incidental to Navy sonar training during the next five years. Each “take” is an instance of harm caused by high intensity sonar that can range from disorientation, to hearing loss, stranding and death. 
The scope of these three “midnight rules” is immense. According to data compiled in the rules, the Navy’s exercises will injure or harass marine mammals more than two million times each year – more than ten million times over the course of the five-year permits. The rules also effectively authorize the Navy to expand its existing activities. Together they cover the lion’s share of training exercises and sonar testing taking place off the United States, affecting the entire eastern seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico, California, and Hawaii. 
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS must ensure that it has properly analyzed “takes,” accounted for cumulative impacts, and imposed effective mitigation measures.  The new sonar rules, which were promulgated by the Bush Administration, fail to satisfy these federal obligations. For example, they fail to give any special consideration to whale species with known vulnerability to acute injury and death from sonar exposure; they fail to bar or limit sonar training in areas of known biological significance, instead authorizing its use throughout millions of square miles; they fail to assess cumulative impacts on marine mammals despite the millions of predicted marine mammal “takes”; and they fail to include practicable safeguards to reduce risk of harm, including even those the Navy has used before.
Following is a statement by Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of NRDC's marine mammal program:
“These new sonar rules were completed in the waning weeks of the Bush Administration to prevent review by the Obama Administration. Unless reopened by the new leadership at NOAA, the rules will illegally harm entire populations of whales and dolphins over millions of square miles of ocean and rich marine habitat -- and they will do so for years to come. This is a case of needless environmental injury on a staggering geographic scale, and it cries out for transparent, good faith review by an administration in which good science unquestionably matters.”
The AFAST area covers the entire Atlantic Coast of the U.S. and Gulf of Mexico, covering millions of square nautical miles.  Forty-three marine mammal species occur in the AFAST area, six of which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  This includes the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, subject of intense conservation efforts (there are only approximately 300 North Atlantic right whales left).  NOAA has also concluded in past consultations that the “loss of even a single individual right whale may contribute to the extinction of the species.”
The SOCAL range is more than 120,000 square nautical miles, including the southern four Channel Islands, representing an area larger than New Mexico.  NMFS’ SOCAL final rule authorizes the Navy to take 126,576 marine mammals annually.  This is more than half a million takes over the life of the permit.  Neither NMFS nor the Navy has proposed excluding sonar from any area on the SOCAL range, including areas of known biological significance; and no areas within the AFAST area have been placed off limits despite its enormous geographic sweep. The waters off Southern California have some of the richest marine habitat in the country, and include five endangered species of whales, a globally important population of blue whales, the largest animal ever to live on earth, and as many as seven individual species of beaked whales, which are known to be particularly vulnerable to underwater sound.  
The Navy’s Hawaii range covers 235,000 square nautical miles and NMFS’ Hawaii final rule authorizes the Navy to take 27,707 marine mammals per year.  Like the AFAST and SOCAL rules, the Hawaii rule is deficient because it adopts insufficient mitigation measures, underestimates take numbers, adopts faulty Navy science, and simply fails to analyze cumulative impacts.
High-intensity sonar can blast vast areas of the oceans with dangerous levels of underwater noise, and has killed marine mammals in numerous incidents around the world. Many scientists believe that animals seen stranded on the beach represent only a small part of the technology’s toll, given that severely injured animals would rarely come to shore.