Sounding Off on the Navy’s Sonar

International Marine Mammal Project

At long last, the public got its turn to question the US Navy’s proposal to deploy one of the loudest man-made noisemakers into the world’s oceans to detect “enemy” submarines.

Underwater blasts of the Navy’s Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) can be heard for thousands of miles across ocean basins. Sensitive marine life – particularly whales and other marine mammals that use low frequency sound to find food, navigate and communicate – are considered particularly at risk.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) held a series of public hearings in late April and early May to consider whether to grant the Navy the right to “take” (e.g., harass and kill) a “small number” of marine mammals. NMFS officials made it clear that they do not see any problem with LFAS: It was up to the audience to prove them wrong.

On April 26, Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) joined other environmentalists to focus attention on the first public hearing in Los Angeles.

At 11 a.m., the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) hosted a well-attended press conference in nearby Santa Monica, featuring actor Pierce Brosnan, several scientists, NRDC attorney Joel Reynolds and a tape of ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau opposing LFAS.

Acoustician Michael Stocker played a tape recording of an LFAS burst that rattled teeth throughout the room. Stocker pointed out that the sound merely simulated the impact of the blast five miles from the LFAS source. Any attempt to approximate the acoustic effect closer than five miles would destroy his equipment! On some local stations, Brosnan and the LFAS story led the evening news.

At 4 p.m., IMMP joined the LA-based group Eco-Link for a protest in front of the Renaissance Hotel, site of the NMFS hearings. Mark Berman brought out IMMP’s inflatable blue dolphin, restraining it in the ocean breeze. The demo got lots of supportive honks from passing drivers, and the hotel even joined in, dispatching a table and waiter to the sidewalk to serve cookies and punch.

More than 200 people attended the packed hearing. The Navy’s Joseph Johnson led the evening with a (very misleading) 15-minute slide show. Johnson insisted very defensively that the LFAS would not harm marine mammals. The audience did not buy it. Virtually the entire audience wore IMMP’s “Stop Navy Soundblasting” buttons.

Brosnan lead the public portion of the hearing along with the NRDC, which made a strong case against issuing a permit to deploy the LFAS. Representatives from IMMP, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, El Dorado Audubon, BayKeeper, American Cetacean Society, Whaleman Foundation, Heal the Bay, Stop LFAS, and Council for a Living Ocean, among others, then presented their case. The room exploded with applause after every speaker.

The hearing officers were handed an anti-sonar letter signed by usicians Jackson Brown, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash and the Indigo Girls. Diana Mann of Eco-Link joined a group of Girl Scouts who read letters asking the delighted crowd to save the whales.

Towards the end, one speaker, who identified himself as a career Navy man, said he had come to the hearing planning to defend the Navy. Having heard the testimony, however, he had now decided that the people were right, and that “we should find some other way to protect ourselves from submarines, and leave the whales in peace.”

Michael Stocker again set off his LFAS simulator through the hall. Not one person spoke in favor of the LFAS proposal.

A similar hearing in Honolulu, Hawai’i, on April 28 drew more than 50 speakers opposed to LFAS. A representative from US Congressmember Patsy Mink’s (D-HI) office spoke out against the issuance of the permit. When the NMFS attempted to block testimony about the human consequences of using LFAS and its effects on divers, attorney Lanny Sinkin (who has spearheaded lawsuits with IMMP and other groups to block LFAS testing in Hawai’i) counterattacked: Had not the Navy itself, he asked, used studies on humans to justify the “safety” of LFAS?

A final hearing was held on May 3, in Silver Spring, Maryland, near Washington DC. For a second time, NMFS officials tried to block a simulation of the LFAS sound signal, but IMMP’s Mac Hawley held his ground. He rattled the hearing room with the noise – at a mere fraction of its power – to demonstrate just how loud the LFAS signal will be through the world’s oceans.

NMFS will be assessing public comments on the Navy’s LFAS this summer. It is expected to decide by late summer or early fall whether to issue the requested permit. If NMFS bows to the Navy’s political clout, IMMP and other groups will challenge the permit in court and in Congress.

“LFAS has the potential to deafen every marine mammal on Earth,” says IMMP Director David Phillips. “We cannot allow the Navy to go forward with deployment of this unnecessary sound-blasting of the oceans. Other technologies are available to achieve the goal of detection of submarines without destroying life in the oceans.”

What You Can Do: Urge your representatives [House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515; Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510] to oppose the LFAS. Also contact: George W. Bush [The White House, Washington, DC 20500], Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld [US Dept. of Defense, 1000 Defense, The Pentagon, Washington, DC 20301] and Secretary for the Navy, Robert R. England, [The Pentagon, Washington, DC 20350]. For further information, contact IMMP [300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133; (415) 788-3666;].

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