The Navy won approval yesterday to deploy two ships that use controversial low-frequency sonar to detect faraway submarines, despite continuing questions about whether the system's loud blasts will injure whales and other ocean mammals.
The ruling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants the Navy an exemption from federal rules that guard marine mammals from incidental injury. The agency concluded that protective measures required of the Navy will ensure that the effects of the sonar will be "negligible" and will not undermine the long-term health of whales and other ocean mammals.
However, the five-year authorization requires the Navy to investigate unanswered questions regarding how the low-frequency sonar affects whale behavior, and whether it can silence the songs of large whales in particular. It also forbids the Navy from using the system when ocean mammals are within 1.1 nautical miles, since the force of the noise can damage their hearing and disrupt their activities within that range.
The decision was a blow to environmentalists who fear that growing noise pollution in the oceans will harm whales, dolphins, porpoises and other sea creatures that have been at the center of global preservation efforts. It was welcomed by those worried about how environmental and endangered-species laws have been affecting military preparedness.
"The monitoring will be extensive and research will continue," said Rebecca Lent, deputy assistant administrator with NOAA Fisheries. "The goal is to make sure that marine mammals are protected as much as [is] feasible."
The long-awaited ruling is not expected to settle the issue. Environmental groups have strongly opposed the low-frequency sonar plan, and Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council said his group is actively considering a lawsuit to stop it. The NRDC's protests helped stop the Navy's early low-frequency sonar experiments and led to the Navy's 1999 request for an exemption from the Marine Mammal Act.
Jasny yesterday criticized the agency for "permitting global use of the system without assessing its potential to kill marine mammals and without providing any effective way of ensuring that none are killed."
A lawsuit, however, could also result in congressional action to move ahead anyway. The Bush administration has been exploring legislation to make sure that environmental and animal protection rules not be allowed to supersede military preparedness.
According to Lt. Cmdr. Pauline Storum, the Navy expects to receive its formal permission to begin using the sonar in a month, and hopes to deploy the system soon after. She said the Navy "remains committed to the environmentally responsible deployment" of the sonar "to balance the national imperatives of military readiness and environmental conservation."
The new sonar, part of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS), would allow the Navy to detect and track quiet submarines -- which don't create the noise that can be followed through "passive" sonar -- and to do it at a much longer range. The low frequencies are essential to the system because they travel much farther underwater than the higher frequencies now employed.
The new sonar system creates a noise roughly equivalent to that of a Boeing 747 engine at takeoff, and would clearly injure many marine mammals if they were close by. But under the NOAA permit, the Navy would use visual sighting, and the kind of passive sonar used by commercial fishing fleets, to make sure no marine mammals are within the prohibited zone around the noise blast. The sonar would also not be allowed within 12 nautical miles of coastlines.
The permit issued yesterday gives the Navy permission to injure some whales and other ocean mammals should its monitoring system fail. But NOAA officials said they did not expect that to happen.
NOAA officials acknowledged they still don't have answers to some key questions regarding how the sonar system will affect these whales and their long-term behavior. According to Roger Gentry, coordinator of the NOAA acoustics team, large whales -- including blue, fin and humpback -- communicate at the same low frequencies as the new sonar, and so their ears would be particularly sensitive to it.
Concern about noise pollution in the oceans has grown as researchers learn more about how marine mammals rely on sound to avoid dangers, to find food and to interact with each other. Much of the problematic noise comes from commercial shipping and underwater oil and gas exploration, but Navy sonar has also proven to be deadly.
That became clear after the March 2000 stranding of 17 whales and dolphins in the Bahamas. The Navy initially denied its sonar caused the subsequent deaths of six beaked whales, but later acknowledged responsibility after unusual tests -- made possible by the freezing of several dead whales -- showed the animals had suffered internal injuries from the noise. The Navy and NOAA said the Bahamas incident involved mid-frequency sonar, which is more harmful under certain unusual circumstances than the low-frequency sonar now permitted.
The Navy had initially requested a permit to deploy four ships with the low-frequency sonar, but yesterday's permit allows two. One ship has been completed and one is under construction.
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