NRDC Statement on Federal Curtailment of Public's Right to Comment on Controversial Sonar Rule

LOS ANGELES (July 12, 2007) – In a
move aimed at curtailing public input into one of its most controversial proposals in recent years,
the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) imposed on Monday an almost unprecedented two-week limit for public comment on a new sonar rule. The far-reaching rule would revive discredited plans to allow the use of a controversial U.S. Navy sonar system throughout over 70 percent of the world’s oceans.
In a letter to NMFS, NRDC manifested its “profound concern” over the new proposed rule and protested against the “outrageously short” period for public comment. The customary period for public comments in similar cases goes from 30 to 45 days, sometimes even 60 days or more.
The proposed rule retreats from many of the key restrictions that have governed the Navy’s training with the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active (SURTASS LFA) sonar, restrictions which were ordered by a federal court in 2003 for the protection of whales, turtles, and other marine life, and which are due to expire on August 16.
The restrictions were put in place after a successful lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with the Navy agreeing to various mitigation measures designed to protect marine mammals. These measures
include a wide coastal exclusion zone of at least 30 nautical miles, a restriction on some sonar frequencies, and severe geographical limitations on where the exercises can take place, all aimed at preventing certain types of injuries to marine mammals.
The new rule proposed by NMFS significantly alters each of these limitations while doubling the number of ships authorized to use the sonar system.
Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst with NRDC: “The Navy’s LFA sonar system bombards thousands of square miles of ocean with deadly noise, potentially harming marine mammals in vast areas of the world’s oceans.”
“In our previous lawsuit the court found that both NMFS and the Navy had violated multiple bedrock environmental laws in their authorization of LFA sonar for use worldwide.  As a result, LFA sonar training exercises have been limited to a restricted area in the Western Pacific Ocean and have been conducted only with significant protections for marine life in place.”
“Now NMFS is proposing to remove these key protections, and is seeking to do so under cover of a shockingly short public comment period. The only plausible explanation for NMFS’ action is its desire to have the rule in place before August 16, when the Navy’s authority to use the system will expire. This suggests not only a pre-decided outcome on the substance of the permit, but an indifference to public process that is – or should be – shameful.”