Last Minute Rules Expose Millions of Marine Mammals to Sonar Harm

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jessica Lass at 310/434-2300 (main), 202/468-6718 (cell), jlass@nrdc.org

Last Minute Rules Expose Millions of Marine Mammals to Sonar Harm

New Rules Endanger Whales and Dolphins and Fail to Satisfy Federal Law

LOS ANGELES - Last-minute rules proposed by the Bush
administration will expose millions of marine mammals to harm from
naval training with high-intensity sonar unless amended by the Obama
Administration. The rules, issued by the National Marine Fisheries
Service (NMFS), address Navy sonar training in the Atlantic, the Gulf
of Mexico, in waters off Southern California, and around Hawaii.
Together, they authorize over 10 million marine mammal "takes"
incidental to Navy sonar training during the next five years. Each
"take" is an instance of harm caused by high intensity sonar that can
range from disorientation, to hearing loss, stranding and death.  

The
scope of these three "midnight rules" is immense. According to data
compiled in the rules, the Navy's exercises will injure or harass
marine mammals more than two million times each year - more than ten million
times over the course of the five-year permits. The rules also
effectively authorize the Navy to expand its existing
activities. Together they cover the lion's share of training exercises
and sonar testing taking place off the United States, affecting the
entire eastern seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico, California, and Hawaii. 
 

Under
the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS must ensure that it has
properly analyzed "takes," accounted for cumulative impacts, and
imposed effective mitigation measures.  The new sonar rules, which were
promulgated by the Bush Administration, fail to satisfy these federal
obligations. For example, they fail to give any special consideration
to whale species with known vulnerability to acute injury and death
from sonar exposure; they fail to bar or limit sonar training in areas
of known biological significance, instead authorizing its use
throughout millions of square miles; they fail to assess cumulative
impacts on marine mammals despite the millions of predicted marine
mammal "takes"; and they fail to include practicable safeguards to
reduce risk of harm, including even those the Navy has used before.
 

Following is a statement by Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of NRDC's marine mammal program:
 

"These
new sonar rules were completed in the waning weeks of the Bush
Administration to prevent review by the Obama Administration. Unless
reopened by the new leadership at NOAA, the rules will illegally harm
entire populations of whales and dolphins over millions of square miles
of ocean and rich marine habitat -- and they will do so for years to
come. This is a case of needless environmental injury on a staggering
geographic scale, and it cries out for transparent, good faith review
by an administration in which good science unquestionably matters." 

Background: 

The
AFAST area covers the entire Atlantic Coast of the U.S. and Gulf of
Mexico, covering millions of square nautical miles.  Forty-three marine
mammal species occur in the AFAST area, six of which are listed as
endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

This includes the
critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, subject of intense
conservation efforts (there are only approximately 300 North Atlantic
right whales left).  NOAA has also concluded in past consultations that
the "loss of even a single individual right whale may contribute to the
extinction of the species."
 

The
SOCAL range is more than 120,000 square nautical miles, including the
southern four Channel Islands, representing an area larger than New
Mexico.  NMFS' SOCAL final rule authorizes the Navy to take 126,576
marine mammals annually.  This is more than half a million takes over
the life of the permit.  Neither NMFS nor the Navy has proposed
excluding sonar from any area on the SOCAL range, including areas of
known biological significance; and no areas within the AFAST area have
been placed off limits despite its enormous geographic sweep. The
waters off Southern California have some of the richest marine habitat
in the country, and include five endangered species of whales, a
globally important population of blue whales, the largest animal ever
to live on earth, and as many as seven individual species of beaked
whales, which are known to be particularly vulnerable to underwater
sound.  
 

The
Navy's Hawaii range covers 235,000 square nautical miles and NMFS'
Hawaii final rule authorizes the Navy to take 27,707 marine mammals per
year.  Like the AFAST and SOCAL rules, the Hawaii rule is deficient
because it adopts insufficient mitigation measures, underestimates take
numbers, adopts faulty Navy science, and simply fails to analyze
cumulative impacts.
 

High-intensity
sonar can blast vast areas of the oceans with dangerous levels of
underwater noise, and has killed marine mammals in numerous incidents
around the world. Many scientists believe that animals seen stranded on
the beach represent only a small part of the technology's toll, given
that severely injured animals would rarely come to shore.

 

###

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing.

More in: