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 submarines.

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 important habitat.

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 Policy Act.

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.