Loud as a rocket launch, sonar used across the world’s oceans during testing and training by the U.S. Navy harms marine mammals in violation of U.S. environmental laws, claims a lawsuit filed here today in federal court by a coalition of conservation and animal welfare organizations.
Whales, dolphins and other marine animals could be spared injury and death with common sense precautions, but the Navy refuses to implement them, according to the lawsuit, brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Cetacean Society International, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the League for Coastal Protection, and Ocean Futures Society and its founder and president Jean Michel-Cousteau.
The Navy has 60 days to respond to the legal action.
The case follows a successful lawsuit by some of the same groups, settled two years ago, that blocked the global deployment of the Navy’s new low-frequency active sonar system, and restricted its use for testing and training to a limited area of the northwestern Pacific Ocean.
Submarine USS Greeneville off the coast of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The smaller sub on top is an Advanced SEAL Delivery System that can carry 10 people and features sophisticated sonar. July 2003. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
Today’s lawsuit targets training with mid-frequency sonar, the principal system used aboard U.S. naval vessels to locate submarines and underwater objects. Nearly 60 percent of the Navy's 294 ships and submarines are equipped with mid-frequency sonar systems.
Mid-frequency sonar can emit continuous sound above 235 decibels, an intensity roughly comparable to a Saturn V rocket at blastoff.
Marine mammals have sensitive hearing, and intense sonar blasts can disturb, injure, and kill them. Whales exposed to high-intensity mid-frequency sonar have repeatedly stranded and died on beaches around the world, some bleeding from the eyes and ears, with severe lesions in their organ tissue, the plaintiff groups point out.
The association between sonar and whale mortalities is "very convincing and appears overwhelming," according to a report issued last year by the whale biologists who make up the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission.
The document concluded with 22 recommendations involving the use of high-intensity, mid-frequency military sonar, seismic oil and gas surveying, possible mitigation measures, and increased multi-national research efforts.
This detailed concern for noise pollution in the marine environment was unprecedented at the IWC and it may signal rising global awareness of the harmful effects of loud, underwater noise.
The committee also noted concerns that stranding reports may underestimate sonar harm because they do not account for whales that die at sea and are never found.
In October 2004, the European Parliament voted 441 to 15 to urge member nations to curtail use of active sonar in European waters, and to create a multinational task force regarding sonar and other noise from human activities.
Marine mammals depend on sound to navigate, find food, locate mates, avoid predators, and communicate with each other. Blasting their environment with intense sound over large expanses of ocean disrupts these behaviors and may threaten their survival, the environmental groups maintain.
Gray whale beached on the Pacific coast of North America. (Photo courtesy NOAA) "Military sonar needlessly threatens whole populations of whales and other marine animals," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at NRDC. "In violation of our environmental laws, the Navy refuses to take basic precautions that could spare these majestic creatures. Now we’re asking the courts to enforce those laws."
Mass stranding and mortality events associated with mid-frequency sonar exercises have occurred, among other places, 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 in Greece (1996). One of the best documented incidents occurred 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.
Earlier this year, 37 whales of three species stranded along North Carolina’s Outer Banks after the Navy conducted sonar exercises in an area planned for use as a sonar training range.
Scientists at several major universities, working under federal contract, conducted necropsies and tissue analyses on the whales to determine why they died. The government has refused to release the scientists’ findings despite a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by NRDC in June.
The lawsuit claims that the Navy’s use of mid-frequency sonar violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Those laws require the Navy to assess and mitigate the damage its activities cause; to obtain "take" permits for the animals its activities will necessarily harass, harm or kill; and to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service on the potential effects of mid-frequency sonar exercises on threatened or endangered species.
"The U.S. Navy could use a number of proven methods to avoid harming whales when testing mid-frequency sonar," said Fred O’Regan, President and CEO of IFAW, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
"Protecting whales and preserving national security are not mutually exclusive. The American people deserve more of a can-do approach from the U.S. Navy," O’Regan said.
Environmental and whale conservation groups have been working for years to achieve protection of marine mammals from U.S. Navy sonar.
Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, speaks with Navy Cmdr. Greg Gibson regarding the operational employment of the AN/AQS-20A Mine Hunting Sonar System. The sonar is intended to detect and identify deeper moored mines and visible bottom mines. Panama City, Florida, November 2004.(Photo by Rob Cole courtesy U.S. Navy)
Four groups submitted a formal letter to the Secretary of the Navy Gordon England in July 2004 requesting a constructive dialogue about mitigating sonar harm to marine life.
The groups - NRDC, IFAW, Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, and the Humane Society of the United States - wrote, "We'd rather not resort to litigation, so we are once again asking the Navy to sit down to discuss this in a spirit of cooperation. The Navy can no longer ignore the unnecessary infliction of harm associated with this technology."
"We owe it to our children to be better stewards of the environment by protecting our ocean friends and their ecosystem," said Cousteau at the time.
The Navy did not "respond meaningfully" to the letter or to change its practices, said the NRDC's Reynolds.
The lawsuit filed today seeks to compel the Navy to prepare a mitigation plan to reduce its impact on whales and other marine mammals from mid-frequency sonar.
The plan could include precautions during peacetime testing or training with mid-frequency sonar, such as:
Many of these measures are similar to those already in place to protect marine mammals from low-frequency sonar after the 2002 lawsuit.
- putting rich marine mammal habitat off limits
- avoiding migration routes and feeding or breeding areas when marine mammals are present
- testing and training with sonar primarily in areas with few marine mammals
- listening with passive sonar to ensure marine mammals are not in the testing area before switching on active sonar
- increasing the volume of active sonar gradually to give nearby marine mammals a chance to flee
- curtailing active sonar drills when marine mammals are detected
To dramatize their case, NRDC and IFAW today released a short movie about harm suffered by marine mammals from high-intensity military sonar and seismic air guns used to find oil and gas deposits beneath the ocean floor. The movie is narrated by actor and environmentalist Pierce Brosnan and produced by Imaginary Forces.