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Tuesday, January 13, 2004



Judge allows sea sonar
tests to continue

The whale-detection system faces
another court test on Thursday


SAN FRANCISCO >> A federal judge rejected a request to immediately halt testing of an experimental sonar system to detect whales yesterday, but he set a hearing to decide whether to ban research on the system.

Environmental groups had asked U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti, who temporarily blocked testing of the system last year, to again stop research on the sonar, claiming it can harm whales and other marine mammals.

The company that designed the sonar, Scientific Solutions Inc., of Nashua, N.H., resumed testing the sonar earlier this month after receiving a new permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The day after testing resumed, a coalition of environmental groups, including Australians for Animals, Sea Sanctuary and others, went back to court seeking another judicial ban. Those groups claim the high-frequency sonar could disturb and disorient whales, drive them from their feeding grounds and separate calves from their mothers.

The company, which has been testing the sonar off the coast of Central California near San Luis Obispo, says the system is safe and will help protect whales from ship collisions and underwater explosions.

Environmental groups first sued over the issue more than a year ago, arguing that Scientific Solutions should have conducted an environmental assessment before starting the project. Judge Conti agreed, halting the testing and ordering the company to obtain an environmental assessment and apply for a new permit.

After an assessment conducted, the company received the new permit Dec. 24 from the National Marine Fisheries Service to begin testing.

The environmental groups went back to court last Thursday, arguing that the assessment was inadequate and that high-frequency sonars were known to disturb whales. They said the company should be required to file an additional report detailing the way the sonar can affect whales.

"I'm really concerned about the effects on the whales," said Robin Mankey, a board director with Sea Sanctuary. "I think the sonar has effects that we don't know about. There are still huge unknowns."

Officials with Scientific Solutions said that migrating whales have not shown any unusual behavior since testing began last week. "There's no evidence that the whales are behaving differently with or without the sonar," said Peter Stein, president of Scientific Solutions.

Yesterday the judge said the environmental groups had not provided enough evidence to justify an immediate halt to the tests, but scheduled a full hearing for Thursday on whether to allow the research to continue.

The company says a new type of method of detecting whales is needed because the two current methods -- passive sonar and visual identification -- are not reliable or accurate.

Scientific Solutions says it is conducting tests to determine safe levels of active sonar soundings that can detect whales without harming them.

The company, which has already conducted five days of testing, hopes to complete 20 days of research during this year's whale migration season, which runs from mid-December to mid-February.

The company says marine mammal experts are observing the research project and have the authority to call off the tests if they believe the whales are being harmed.

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