Group blasts new rules for Navy sonar
A national environmental group says proposed new rules would allow the Navy to expand use of a controversial sonar system that could threaten marine mammals like dolphins and whales that use underwater sounds to communicate and navigate.
The National Resources Defense Council sued the Navy five years ago over its proposal to trail a device in the water behind ships that transmits low-frequency sound waves to detect enemy submarines.
That lawsuit led to tighter restrictions in 2003 on the use of the so-called Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS), using low-frequency active (LFA) sonar, or "pings." Those guidelines expire Aug. 17.
Now the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with protection of marine mammals, has proposed guidelines for the next five years that are weaker than those in place now -- and are almost exactly what the Navy asked for in 2002, said NRDC attorney Cara Horowitz.
According to the NRDC, the biggest differences between current and proposed guidelines would:
» Allow SURTASS LFA in 70 percent of the world's oceans, instead of just the Western Pacific (west of the entire Hawaiian Archipelago), as is allowed now.
» Shrink the coastal buffer zone where no SURTASS LFA sonar is allowed from 30 to 12 nautical miles.
» Allow higher-frequency sonar use.
The NRDC also is alarmed that the comment period on the new rules was just two weeks. Similar cases have had comment periods of up to 45 to 60 days or more, Horowitz said.
The Navy argues that the system is important to anti-submarine warfare training.
"The Navy requested this action," Pacific Fleet spokesman Mark Matsunaga said. "So we are pleased."
In a news release, Michael Jasny, NRDC senior policy analyst, said the court found in the earlier suit that both the Fisheries Service and the Navy had "violated multiple bedrock environmental laws in their authorization of LFA sonar for use worldwide."
He added, "As a result, LFA sonar training exercises have been limited to a restricted area in the Western Pacific Ocean and have been conducted only with significant protections for marine life in place."