Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XI No. 2 - April 2002


Noise: Who or What Is the Military Fighting?

By William Rossiter


Many concerned with human noise in the oceans had expected NMFS' final determination on the Navy's Low Frequency Active Sonar system (LFA) to have been released months ago, but the avalanche of comments submitted by marine biologists, bioacousticians, environmental and animal welfare NGOs, and a well-educated public have required more time to consider than expected. We are grateful for the delay. For a history of this issue see almost every Whales Alive! back to October 1996.

CSI and others expect that NMFS' determination will authorize deployment of the LFA system, even as new evidence confirms the potential of active sonar to cause serious adverse impacts on marine mammals. The complex physics that cause specific sounds, like some sonars, to initiate resonance in the pressurized air cavities, or to activate bubbles in the blood of diving whales, have taken the issue of noise impacts well beyond simply deafening whales with loud sounds. A scientific workshop on these issues will be hosted by NMFS in late April.

But remember that the Navy considers all aspects of antisubmarine warfare to be an active and ongoing war. By definition all "normal" (non-test and training) LFA operations are exempt from all the constraints and issues we have been fighting for over six years. The LFA was designed to be deployed on the T-Agos ships 19-23, which were launched many years ago as SURTASS (towed array) assets. Have any of these ships been carrying and using the LFA system in "normal" operations, perhaps even before the entire Corey-Chouest LFA research program, O-EIS, and NMFS Small Take Authorization Permit? As all ship locations and operations are classified we cannot tell, but if you see a big, boxy gray catamaran vessel numbered 19 to 23 please let us know.

With the LFA over a decade old, and still not authorized for test or training, the Navy's frustration has become even more aggressive. On 14 March the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Military Readiness heard one-sided testimony from the Department of Defense and federal environmental agencies on the impact on military readiness and national security caused by compliance with various federal environmental laws. Chairman Joel Hefley opened the hearing with this printed statement of denial for the press: "The committee has been receiving a growing number of reports from the Department of Defense and the military services that their mandatory compliance with federal environmental laws is having an increasingly adverse impact on military readiness which, over time, will adversely impact national security. There have been some erroneous reports in the media that our objective today is to propose `sweeping exemptions' for the military that would have an adverse impact on the environment. That is not true. It is not the intention of this subcommittee to propose or support any legislation that would harm the environment. All of us treasure our environment. We have asked the Department of Defense, the four military services, and some of the Federal regulatory agencies to provide their views on this important issue."

He had to have known that an administration bill was circulating, essentially attacking the core definition of "harassment" of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Besides raising the threshold for all sorts of activities, the words are ambiguous enough to impede enforcement and enable users, including the military, to evade the regulatory system. He must have known that the Department of Defense is promoting another bill, which simply exempts the military from key provisions of many of our other leading environmental statutes, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act. Now read Representative Hefley's statement again. How could he say that with a straight face? Clearly we are up against something big.

The Amendments to the Act that are now under review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) attack the fundamental scope of the MMPA. They were approved initially by NMFS, but without any input from the environmental community. In response, a sweeping coalition of organizations is coming together to protect the MMPA, and the animals it is supposed to protect. CSI joined six of those NGOs at a meeting in Washington in early April, with a representative of Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., Administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees NMFS. If officials and politicians heed our concerns it will be because we represent you, and many others. It is time to remember that your vote empowers your voice, and we will call on your help sometime soon to help the MMPA survive. Most CSI members probably belong to many of the Coalition organizations, so we suspect that you will receive many pleas for action. In the end it may hinge on how many voters like you speak up.


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