Obama Administration to Revisit Bush-Era Sonar Policies

"Hotspots" of Marine Mammal Activity Could Be Placed Off-Limits

WASHINGTON (January 19, 2010) – The National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA) today announced steps to protect whales and other marine life from Navy sonar, which can cause injury and even death in deep-diving mammals.

NOAA plans to identify sensitive marine mammal habitat along the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the waters off southern California and other areas where the use of mid-frequency sonar endangers whales, dolphins and porpoises. NOAA will then assess those risks and consider what additional measures might be required to protect marine mammals from further harm, according to documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Depending on NOAA’s actions over the next year, this announcement could represent a sea change in where and how the Navy uses sonar in training,” said Michael Jasny, Senior Policy Analyst for NRDC, which has repeatedly sued NOAA and the Navy for failing to place sensitive whale habitat off-limits to sonar use. “It appears that NOAA at last acknowledges what the global scientific community widely recognizes – that more must be done to protect whales and other marine life from this dangerous technology.”

Today’s announcement came in a letter from Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator, to Nancy Sutley, Chief of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and fulfills a promise made during the opening days of the Obama Administration to review Bush-era policy on sonar. Among the highlights:

  • NOAA concludes that “ongoing mitigation efforts, in our view, must do more” to address uncertainties and protect marine mammals – a major shift from the Bush administration, which just last year authorized three permits allowing over 10 million marine mammal “takes” resulting from Navy sonar training through 2013.

  • The letter commits the Obama administration to identify important marine mammal habitat, or “hotspots,” for potential avoidance in sonar training, another reversal of Bush-era policy. According to the NOAA letter, “Protecting important marine mammal habitat is generally recognized to be the most effective mitigation measure currently available.”

  • The letter specifies that NOAA will conduct a series of workshops to learn more about “hotspots”; to develop a plan for assessing the cumulative harm of sonar, oil exploration, and other intense sources of ocean noise; and to improve wildlife monitoring on the Navy’s ranges. Based on the results of these workshops, NOAA will consider additional measures to reduce harm from sonar, in future regulations under federal law. The letter also commits NOAA to participate in ongoing negotiations between NRDC and the Navy over sonar mitigation.

“NOAA’s decision to identify important habitat is a promising development, and a reversal of Bush-era policy,” said Jasny. “But it’s only the beginning of a process, and the big question over the next year is whether the Obama Administration will turn its new policy into action that truly protects the oceans from needless harm.”

The Navy’s powerful sonar systems are known to injure and kill deep-diving beaked whales and to disrupt behavior in numerous whale, dolphin, and porpoise species. The Navy intends to train with high-intensity sonar in waters off virtually every U.S. coastal state.

The catalyst for today’s letter is a group of  three broad “midnight” rules, developed by NOAA in the waning days of the Bush Administration, that allow Navy sonar training along the Atlantic coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, in waters off southern California, and around Hawaii through 2013. Together, the three rules permit extensive sonar exercises expected to cause roughly 2 million instances of harassment and hearing loss to marine mammals every year, according to Navy estimates. Today’s announcement could also affect similar rules that the Navy has requested for the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Marianas Islands.

Under the Bush Administration, neither NOAA nor the Navy proposed excluding sonar from any area on most of the Navy’s ranges, which sweep over hundreds of thousands of square nautical miles of ocean. A number of scientific panels, including two convened by intergovernmental organizations, have concluded that avoidance of important habitat is the most effective means of reducing sonar’s impacts on marine mammals. On January 23, 2009, as the new administration took office, NOAA announced that it would conduct a comprehensive review of measures to reduce sonar’s harm to marine mammals.