Navy Agrees To Limit Global Sonar Deployment

Conservation and Animal Welfare Groups Announce International Campaign to Reduce Harm to Marine Life From Intense Active Sonar; NATO Petition Submitted Today

LOS ANGELES (OCTOBER 13, 2003) -- In a groundbreaking accord with conservation and animal welfare groups, the U.S. Navy has agreed to scale back deployment of a dangerous new kind of high-intensity sonar system.

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), The Humane Society of the United States, Cetacean Society International, League for Coastal Protection, Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau sued the government over its original permit, which would have allowed testing and training with the system worldwide over a period of five years. U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte, who invalidated the permit, is expected to act on the joint stipulation this week.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Navy will limit use of the new sonar system to specific areas along the eastern seaboard of Asia (around North Korea and China), including portions of the Sea of Japan, the East and South China Seas, and the Philippine Sea. The agreement does not allow LFA sonar in the waters off the Hawaiian Islands, where the Navy had been permitted to use the system this year. In addition to geographical limits, the Navy agreed to certain seasonal exclusions, which conservationists believe will protect critical whale migrations, and to coastal exclusions ranging from 30 to 60 nautical miles. None of the limits apply during war or heightened threat conditions.

The LFA sonar system is capable of generating sounds up to 140 decibels more than 300 miles away from the sonar source. Many scientists believe that blasting such intense sounds over large expanses of the ocean could harm entire populations of marine mammals and fish. During testing off the California coast, noise from a single LFA system was detected across the breadth of the North Pacific.

"This agreement safeguards both marine life and national security," said Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC, the lead plaintiff and counsel in the case. "It will prevent the needless injury, harassment, and death of countless whales, porpoises and fish, and yet allow the Navy to do what is necessary to defend our country."

The proposed agreement comes as the Pentagon is lobbying Congress for exemptions to key provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts. If granted, the exemptions could allow the Navy to test these dangerous systems virtually anywhere, and could reduce safeguards that prevent the oil, gas and other industries from harming the marine environment with intense noise.

"This agreement demonstrates yet again that the Pentagon's request to Congress for exemptions from our environmental laws is unnecessary, unwise, and unjustified and must be rejected," Reynolds said.

Groups Announce International Campaign to Limit Military Sonar; Petition to NATO to be Submitted Today

Saying they recognized that the proliferation of active sonar has become a global environmental problem, the coalition of conservation and animal welfare groups today also announced an international campaign to limit its use. The coalition includes NRDC, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Humane Society International, Ocean Futures Society and its president Jean-Michel Cousteau.

"The agreement with the U.S. Navy is a major step toward protecting the marine environment, but it is only the first part of what must be a global effort," said Frederick O'Regan, President of IFAW. "The increasing use of active sonar by militaries around the world threatens the survival of numerous marine species. If ever there were a situation to employ the 'precautionary principle,' this is it. We're calling on the international community to begin regulating and mitigating the impact of high intensity active sonar before it's too late."

Caroline Lucas, a member of the European Parliament, is scheduled to submit a petition to NATO today calling on the organization to limit deployment of low-frequency active sonar until a global assessment of its cumulative environmental effects can be prepared; to influence member states immediately to mitigate the effects of mid-frequency active sonar; and to work with the European Union on developing international agreements to regulate noise levels in the world's oceans. A petition to the European Parliament was submitted earlier this year on behalf of over 60 conservation organizations and their more than 8 million members worldwide.

"The marine environment is a precious resource that we all must share," said Jean-Michel Cousteau, President of Ocean Futures Society, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Navy, and a citizen of France. "It is also a resource protected by international laws. Many countries have ignored those laws as they relate to the deployment of active sonar, and now is the time to give them teeth."

The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) requires States "to assess the potential effects…on the marine environment" of systems such as high intensity active sonar, and to take all measures "necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source."

The danger to marine life from mid-frequency sonar, whose sound waves do not reach as far as LFA sonar, is clearly documented. Mass stranding and mortality events associated with its use have occurred in the Bahamas (2000), Madeira (2000), and the Canary Islands (2002). Other cases have occurred in Greece (1996), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1998, 1999), the Canary Islands (1985, 1986, 1989), and, most recently, the Northwest coast of the United States (2003).

Mid-frequency sonar systems are widely used by the U.S. and many European nations, and low-frequency systems, such as LFA sonar, are in development by both the U.S. and its allies, including Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. The British Royal Navy alone plans to deploy at least 12 low-frequency sonar systems in the near future.

"The debate about whether high-intensity active sonar poses a risk to marine mammals and fish is over," said Pierce Brosnan, an actor and conservationist who has worked on marine mammal issues for years, and is a citizen of Ireland. "The risk is beyond question, and the only issue now is how the international community is going to limit damage to these remarkable animals."

New Study Suggests Active Sonar Gives Marine Mammals Decompression Sickness or "The Bends"

These announcements come just days after the scientific journal Nature reported that intense, active sonar may kill certain marine mammal species by giving them decompression sickness or "the bends" -- the same illness that can kill scuba divers who surface too quickly from deep water. The international team of scientists that authored the study said compressed nitrogen apparently formed large bubbles in the tissue of whales exposed to intense active sonar, damaging their vital organs and causing internal bleeding and possibly intense pain.

"The Nature study is an important piece of evidence that supports something many scientists have long suspected: that the whales and porpoises we've seen stranded on shore are only the visible symptom of a problem affecting entire populations of marine life," said Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Humane Society of the United States and its international arm, Humane Society International. "The more we learn about the threat of active sonar, the more it appears we've seen only the tip of the iceberg."

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 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages

October 13, 2003, Statement from Joel Reynolds, NRDC, Regarding Navy LFA Settlement

August 26, 2003, Federal Court Restricts Global Deployment of Navy Sonar

Protecting Whales from Dangerous Sonar