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Controversial Navy Sonar Cleared for Limited Testing

SAN FRANCISCO, California,
November 18, 2002 (ENS)

A federal judge has lifted a worldwide ban on the U.S. Navy's
experimental new sonar system, clearing the way for limited
testing of the controversial system.

SURTASS LFA undergoing tests
(Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

The judge approved an agreement reached by the Navy and a coalition of environmental
groups who seek to limit the sonar's potential impacts on marine mammals.

Friday's agreement will allow limited testing of the Navy's Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active sonar (SURTASS LFA) while the federal court in San Francisco considers a lawsuit challenging the legality of the system. Conservation groups have argued that the federal government has not done enough to ensure that the new, high intensity sonar system will not hurt or kill whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles with its loud signals.
Late last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth LaPorte had issued a preliminary injunction stopping the deployment of the sonar system, which relies on very loud, low frequency sound to detect submarines at great distances.
On Friday, she signed a temporary agreement
between lawyers for the Navy and a coalition of
conservation groups, allowing limited testing of
the sonar system under strictly defined conditions.
The Navy originally had planned to deploy
SURTASS LFA across about 14 million miles of
the North Pacific by the end of last summer.
The Navy developed the system to protect
warships against super quiet diesel submarines,
owned by Russia and other nations.

National Marine Fisheries officials respond to a pilot whale stranding.
(Photo courtesy NMFS)

Under the agreement signed Friday, the Navy will launch the system in about one million square miles of ocean around the Mariana Islands, avoiding to coasts of the Philippines and Japan.

"What the Navy sought - and had been permitted for - was 14 million square miles of Pacific Ocean," said Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the groups that has challenged SURTASS LFA in court. "What we ultimately agreed upon, after winning the preliminary injunction, was somewhere between 10 -15 percent of that - in an area of the Pacific Ocean that our experts unanimously told us was among the least productive sections of the much larger permitted area," Reynolds added.

The NRDC agreed to the limited deployment after concluding that Judge LaPorte was unlikely to authorize a complete ban on the sonar system while the court heard continuing arguments in the case. After issuing her temporary injunction, LaPorte had ordered the Navy and conservation groups to work out a compromise that would allow testing to begin.

"The very real risk of not reaching an agreement was that the court was not prepared to order anything close to the amount of geographic exclusion that the Navy finally accepted," Reynolds explained, adding that the NRDC and the other environmental plaintiffs will still seek to get the Navy's permit for SURTASS LFA "invalidated on a permanent basis as soon as possible."
On July 15, the Navy received a permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to "harass marine mammals" in the course of operating SURTASS LFA, and was approved to deploy two ships that use the new sonar system.

The Navy carefully monitors divers involved in SURTASS LFA testing due to concerns that the system may cause physiological harm similar to that seen in whales and other marine mammals.
(Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which issued the permit, concluded that the sonar would have "no more than a negligible impact on the affected species," as long as it was operated at least 12 miles from shore, and was shut down if its operators spotted whales or other sensitive species.

But environmental groups argued that the survival of entire populations of whales and other marine mammals may be jeopardized by the deployment of this sonar, which has been measured at 140 decibels 300 miles away from the sound's source.
"From a scientific point of view, there is very little question that, given the right set of circumstances, active sonar can kill marine life," says Naomi Rose,
a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society of the
United States, one of the co-plaintiffs.

"The frightening thing about LFA is that we're flying blind,
because the Navy has never seriously applied the lessons
from previous strandings to its LFA system," said Rose.

The mass stranding of multiple whale species in the Bahamas
in March 2000
and the simultaneous disappearance of the region's
entire population of beaked whales has been linked to another type
of Navy sonar. A federal investigation identified testing of a
U.S. Navy mid-frequency active sonar system as the cause.

A beached goosebeak whale somewhere in
the Caribbean.
(Photo courtesy Laboratorio de Mamíferos Marinos del Caribe)

In late September, new mass strandings occurred in the Canary Islands as a result of NATO military sonar, and in the Gulf of California two whales died as the likely result of an acoustic geophysical survey using loud air guns.
Under Friday's agreement, the Navy can immediately begin testing SURTASS LFA in the deep waters of the western Pacific, in a region that is believed to avoid major whale migration routes, feeding areas and breeding grounds. The testing area excludes a marine protected area around the Mariana Islands.
The compromise will "minimize the exposure to a long list of endangered and depleted species," said the NRDC's Reynolds.

The U.S. Navy's SURTASS LFA website is available at: