NRDC Blasts Proposal Allowing Deployment of Controversial Navy Sonar Program

Group says no deployment before full investigation of impact on marine life

WASHINGTON (March 20, 2001) - A rule proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service that would allow the U.S. Navy to deploy a powerful new global sonar system drew protest from NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) today. The environmental group says the sound generated by the system is so intense that it could harm marine life that depends on hearing for survival. The group called for further study before deployment.

"Whales and other marine species rely on hearing at least as much as people rely on sight," said Joel Reynolds, director of NRDC's Marine Mammal Protection Project. "We are very concerned that the rule the fisheries service has proposed may not protect this essential piece of the ocean environment."

The system, known as LFA for the "low frequency active" sonar it employs, functions much like a floodlight, scanning the ocean at enormous distances for enemy submarines. It is so powerful that a single source can illuminate hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean at one time. At close range, the noise it produces is millions of times more intense than the Navy considers safe for human divers and billions of times more intense than the level known to disturb large whales. Before NRDC uncovered the program in 1995, the Navy had been testing LFA without the fisheries service's approval.

The fisheries service decided to proceed despite unanswered questions about a mass stranding of whales in the Bahamas last March. A fisheries service-Navy investigation already has established that the strandings were caused by a Navy battle group's active sonar system. That system used mid-frequency sound, which generally does not travel as far as LFA. Last month a marine scientist stated in a letter to the Navy that a number of species stranded in the Bahamas had virtually disappeared from the area.

"The Bahamas strandings confirm just how serious the risks of active sonar can be," said Michael Jasny, an NRDC consultant. "It's astonishing that the fisheries service would propose a rule for a system of such extraordinary reach before its own investigation is completed."

The release of fisheries service's proposed rule opens a 45-day period for public comment that closes May 3. The agency then will decide whether to finalize it. The Navy received more than a thousand comments from concerned parties on its own environmental analysis of LFA, and environmentalists believe that the response to the fisheries service's proposal will be at least as strong.

"The National Marine Fisheries Service has a fundamental responsibility under federal law to ensure the health and safety of marine mammals," Reynolds said. "We will be examining its decision very closely."