High-Intensity Sonar Needlessly Threatens Marine Mammals, Other Species Near President's New Underwater National Monument

LOS ANGELES (June 28, 2006) -- Conservation groups intend to file a federal lawsuit today to stop the U.S. Navy from illegally using high-intensity sonar, which is deadly to whales, during an eight-nation naval exercise that began Monday in a 210,000 square-mile area around Hawaii. The exercise area comprises some of the richest marine habitat in the United States, including waters near the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, created just two weeks ago by President Bush.

The lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups will challenge a last-minute authorization granted yesterday by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) allowing the Navy to "take" as many as 25,000 protected marine mammals by blasting high-intensity, mid-frequency sonar during the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. "Take" is a legal term meaning to harass, hunt, capture or kill.

"It is absurd to designate an area a Marine National Monument one week, and then authorize the Navy to threaten endangered whales and other marine mammals in the region with high-intensity sonar the next," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at NRDC and director of its Marine Mammal Protection Project. "It is possible for the Navy to train effectively without needlessly inflicting harm on marine life, and that is exactly what federal law requires."

The suit will seek a temporary order restraining use of high-intensity, mid-frequency sonar during the exercise unless effective measures are taken to prevent harm to marine life. Although the exercise has begun, sonar activity during RIMPAC 2006 is not scheduled to begin until next week.

Whales exposed to high-intensity mid-frequency sonar have repeatedly stranded and died on beaches around the world, some bleeding around the brain and in the ears, with severe lesions in their organ tissue. At lower intensities, sonar can interfere with the ability of marine mammals to navigate, avoid predators, find food, care for their young, and, ultimately, to survive. There is no scientific dispute that intense sonar blasts can disturb, injure, and even kill marine mammals.

Whales, dolphins and other marine mammals have extraordinarily sensitive hearing, and mid-frequency sonar can emit continuous sound well above 235 decibels, an intensity millions of times stronger than exposures that have killed some species of whales. A recent report by NMFS said that sonar was a "plausible, if not likely" cause of a mass stranding of 150 melon-headed whales during RIMPAC 2004.

The Navy has resisted precautions for mid-frequency sonar use during RIMPAC 2006 despite repeated efforts by outside groups. Such measures include exclusion zones in protected marine areas; reduced sonar intensity at night and in channels where the risk to marine mammals is greatest; implementing the same expanded 'safety zone' around ships that some allied navies use; and effectively monitoring for marine mammals during sonar drills.

"The Navy has known for years about the risk to marine life, and they have had ample time to plan for it without disrupting their training program," Reynolds said. "Instead, they waited until the last minute to request an authorization, and the authorization they got is illegal."

For RIMPAC 2006, the U.S. Navy received an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) from NMFS, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is the first time the Navy has sought prior permission to use sonar.

The IHA was "unlawfully issued," says the suit, because federal law prohibits the use of IHAs to authorize activities, like these sonar exercises, that may seriously injure or kill marine mammals. The lawsuit also asserts numerous other claims under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The lawsuit will be brought by NRDC in conjunction with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau. It will be filed at the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Mass stranding and mortality events associated with mid-frequency sonar exercises have occurred all over the world in the last 20 years. Among the most well known strandings are those in North Carolina (2005), Haro Strait (off the coast of Washington State, 2003), the Canary Islands (2004, 2002, 1989, 1986, 1985), Madeira (2000), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1999, 1998), and Greece (1996).

One of the best-documented incidents took place in the Bahamas, in 2000, when 16 whales of three species stranded along 150 miles of shoreline as ships blasted the area with sonar. The U.S. Navy later acknowledged in an official report that its use of sonar was the likely cause of the stranding.

"We can protect our national security without endangering whales, dolphins, and other marine species," said Cara Horowitz, a project attorney at NRDC. "When it chooses to train in uniquely rich waters like the areas off Hawaii, the Navy must take significant steps to avoid harming whales during tests of mid-frequency sonar."