A federal court in San Francisco today issued a
preliminary injunction limiting the area in which the
U.S. Navy may train with a low-frequency sonar system,
known as Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low
Frequency Active sonar, or SURTASS LFA, that booms low
tones at high volume out across the ocean to detect
On Monday, another federal court enjoined the Navy’s
use of mid-frequency active sonar, a different sonar
system, in exercises off southern California.
“This order protects marine life around the world from
a technology that can affect species on a staggering
geographic scale,” said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney
and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project
at NRDC. Intense sonar noise poses a serious threat to
whales, dolphins, and other marine animals.
The order came in a lawsuit, filed by a coalition of
conservation organizations led by the Natural
Resources Defense Council challenging the Navy’s
proposed deployment of the LFA sonar system in over 75
percent of the world’s oceans.
Holding that marine mammals, “many of whom depend on
sensitive hearing for essential activities like
finding food and mates and avoiding predators, will at
a minimum be harassed by the extremely loud and far
traveling LFA sonar,” the court required the Navy to
reduce the system’s potential harm to marine mammals
by negotiating limits on its use with conservation
groups who had sued over its deployment.
The court ordered the Navy to exclude more areas from
LFA use than those now identified off the coast of the
United States and Canada. The judge observed that
North America does not have “a near monopoly on the
oceanic zones important for marine mammal life as
compared to the rest of the world.”
The preliminary injunction will place certain
additional areas such as the Davidson Seamount, the
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National
Monument, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier
Reef, and the Pelagos in the Mediterranean off limits
to routine LFA sonar operations.
It may also provide a wider coastal exclusion zone
than 12 nautical miles in areas of particularly
LFA sonar relies on extremely loud, low-frequency
sound to detect submarines at great distances.
According to the Navy’s own studies, the LFA system
generates noise intense enough to significantly
disrupt whale behavior more than 300 miles away.
Scientists have testified that, under certain oceanic
conditions, sound from a single LFA system could be
detected across entire oceans.
The lawsuit asserts that a permit issued last year by
the National Marine Fisheries Service, allowing
deployment of the sonar system around the world,
violated a number of federal laws including the Marine
Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental
Rear Adm. Larry Rice, director of the Chief of Naval
Operations Environmental Readiness Division, recently
discussed why training with sonar is important and
vital to national security.
“We cannot send our American Sailors and Marines into
potential trouble spots around the world without
adequate training to defend them,” said Rice. “This is
a national security issue, and we must use all methods
available to ensure that arbitrary and excessive
restrictions do not hamper our ability to train.”
Every five years, the Navy must apply for a new permit
to use LFA. In 2002, this same court held the prior
permit unlawful, after which NRDC and the Navy entered
into a negotiated agreement requiring the Navy to
restrict testing and training with the LFA sonar
system to limited areas in the western North Pacific
Ocean, and adhere to other protective measures,
including seasonal and coastal exclusions that
conservationists believe protect critical whale
migrations and habitat.
Those restrictions have governed the Navy’s use of LFA
sonar for the past five years, and will continue to
govern its use pending the parties’ negotiation of new
limits based on today’s ruling.
“The court also gives the Navy the flexibility it
needs to train effectively, ” said Reynolds. “The two
decisions on sonar this week affirm that this country
can and must achieve our national security aims while
protecting the environment. “
The coalition of plaintiffs includes the International
Fund for Animal Welfare, The Humane Society of the
United States, Cetacean Society International, League
for Coastal Protection, and Ocean Futures Society and
its president and founder Jean-Michel Cousteau.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. Used with permission.