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Navy sub refit fails to save the whale

Brian Brady - Westminster Editor

The Scotsman

28th September 2004

It was supposed to save the whale, but defence chiefs have admitted a supposedly ‘safe’ new 340m sonar system will continue to cause the deaths of the planet’s largest living creatures.

Sonar systems used by the military are known to confuse whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, rendering them incapable of spotting underwater obstacles and beaches, resulting in many deaths and injuries.

Reacting to growing public pressure, the MoD announced three years ago that a new system being designed for ships would be the first "whale-friendly" sonar ever created.

But the MoD has now been forced to admit that the system - called Sonar 2087 - which will be fitted to all Royal Navy anti-submarine frigates within the next two years, is also a potential whale-killer.

Thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises and other similar species around the coast of Scotland and the rest of the UK, will continue to be incapable of detecting rocks or land, and many will be beached, if they come too close to British ships using the high-powered new system.

Extensive tests on the system have established beyond doubt that Sonar 2087 "has the potential to be harmful to marine mammals", defence minister Lord Bach admitted last week.

The embarrassing finding flatly contradicts the lavish claims made of the low-frequency system three years ago, when the MoD attempted to alleviate growing concerns with the boast that it had the "environmentally-friendly advantage that it does not interfere with whales and dolphins".

But Bach confirmed that tests had shown the new system continues to pose a threat, although he added: "A range of mitigation measures has been developed to minimise the impact."

These include cutting off the 2087 system when whales, dolphins and other cetaceans are detected nearby, and steering clear of areas known to be popular breeding-grounds.

Last night, Baroness Miller, who has led parliamentary opposition to the use of Sonar 2087, said she remained concerned about "the sheer power of this new system, the number of decibels that it can produce and the distance that it can travel".

Miller accused the MoD of withholding full details of its impact, on security grounds.

She added: "Given that this system could, indeed, destroy the cetaceans’ habitat because they themselves depend on sonar for communication, this is a very serious problem."

Earlier this year, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society expressed serious concerns about the effects of military sonar on the welfare of the marine animals.

"Cetaceans live in a world dominated by sound, where their acute and highly specialised hearing is their primary sense, relied on both for communication and navigation," the society said in a report published in May.

"Adding alien and often very powerful sound to this environment would be analogous to adding blinding and confusing lights to our own."

Green MSPs have also condemned the system, tabling a motion in the Scottish Parliament urging the executive to investigate legal action against the MoD.

Robin Harper, Green parliamentary leader and speaker on marine affairs, said: "It is almost certainly contributing to the deaths of already severely affected species at risk of extinction. It is time for the government to bring the MoD under control, put it on a leash, and prevent further damage to our environment."

UK MPs are eagerly awaiting an official government report on the impact of the system in the UK’s North West Approaches.

In the face of continuing complaints about his department’s impact on marine life, Bach insisted that the MoD was now more concerned than ever about its effect on the environment.

"I am proud to say that the Ministry of Defence takes very seriously its environmental policy, whether it relates to land, sea or air, and we certainly do so far as concerns this issue," he said.

It is estimated that as many as 27 species of whales, porpoises and dolphins visit Scottish waters.

Annually, around 400 of the marine mammals are beached, including some of the Moray Firth’s famous population of bottlenose dolphins.

Earlier this year wildlife experts said they feared whales could be fleeing their breeding and feeding grounds off Scotland’s north-west coast because of low frequency activated sonar.

American environmentalists recently urged their navy to take action, claiming that dozens of whales had beached themselves off Washington, Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands and Portugal during US manoeuvres.

The MoD originally ordered six Type 23 anti-submarine warfare Dukes to be fitted with Sonar 2087 as part of a mandatory refit, at a cost of 160m, with the other 10 Type 23s in the fleet expected to use it to replace the old Sonar 2031.

Despite the concerns and the mitigation measures, however, ministers have made it clear that the health of marine mammals would have to take second place to the defence of the realm.

"Sonar 2087, which we hope to have in operation by 2006, is an absolutely essential requirement in continuing to ensure that hostile submarines are not a danger to our Royal Navy," Bach said.