Congress shouldn’t
disrupt sonar deal


The Navy has agreed to a court settlement restricting its use of a sonar system to areas along the eastern seaboard of Asia.

THE Navy and environmental groups have agreed to a sensible compromise that restricts use of a sonar system designed to detect enemy submarines but which also could injure whales and other marine life. Environmentalists are elated about the deal, but the Navy is grumbling about being forced into it by a federal magistrate.

As evidence about the danger of sonar on marine life mounts, Congress is considering legislation that would unravel the court settlement and allow the military to be exempt from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other laws. House and Senate defense committees should defer such legislation to natural-resource committees that are more sensitive to environmental concerns.

Environmental groups have been battling the Navy for five years over sonar tests conducted off the coasts of the Big Island and Kauai. The settlement came in a California case after Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte halted the Navy's use of loud, low-frequency active sonar, which can travel hundreds of miles through ocean waters. The deal restricts the use of the system to areas within 30 to 60 miles of Asian coastlines, satisfying the Navy's need to address the threats of North Korea.

"We are thankful the courts have allowed the Navy to use the system as opposed to saying we can't use it outright," said Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Surette, a Navy spokesman. However, he said "it will limit the readiness of our sailors and Marines to meet the submarine threats of the new century." He added that the deal and preceding injunction "highlight why legislative change is required."

The court development came only a few days after the journal Nature published a study by British and Spanish scientists showing that mid-frequency sonar coming from Spanish-led international naval maneuvers off the coast of northwest Africa appears to have given whales and other marine mammals a disorder similar to decompression sickness, or the bends. The disorder may have caused 14 whales to have died after beaching themselves in the Canary Islands.

The scientists say gas bubbles found in the whales' blood vessels may have been caused by interaction of the sonar signals and gas nuclei in whale tissues, or perhaps the noise caused the whales to panic and rise too quickly from deep waters. Some researchers believe the low-frequency sonar used in the experiments near Hawaii could be as harmful as those used near the Canary Islands.



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