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Federal Court restricts global deployment of Navy sonar

PRESS RELEASE: A federal judge ruled August 26, 2003 that the Navy's plan to deploy a new high-intensity sonar system violates numerous federal environmental laws and could endanger whales, porpoises and fish. In a 73-page opinion, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte barred the Navy's planned around-the-world deployment and ordered the Navy to reduce the system's potential harm to marine mammals and fish by negotiating limits on its use with conservation groups who had sued over its deployment.

The sonar system, known as Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active sonar (or LFA), relies on extremely loud, low-frequency sound to detect submarines at great distances. According to the Navy's own studies, LFA generates sounds up to 140 decibels even more than 300 miles away from the sonar source. Many scientists believe that blasting such intense sounds over large expanses of the ocean could harm entire populations of whales, porpoises and fish. During testing off the California coast, noise from a single LFA system was detected across the breadth of the North Pacific Ocean.

"Today's ruling is a reprieve not just for whales, porpoises, and fish, but ultimately for all of us who depend for our survival on healthy oceans," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC, the lead plaintiff and counsel in the case. "The decision recognizes that both national security and environmental protection are essential. It recognizes that during peacetime, even the military must comply with our environmental laws, and it rejects the blank-check permit that would have allowed the Navy to operate LFA sonar virtually anywhere in the world."

In her ruling, Judge Laporte found that a permit issued to the Navy by the National Marine Fisheries Service to deploy LFA sonar violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it did not adequately assess or take steps to mitigate the risks posed by the system to marine mammals and fish.

Judge Laporte found that, "endangered species, including whales, listed salmon and sea turtles will be in LFA sonar's path. There is little margin for error without threatening their survival…Absent an injunction, the marine environment that supports the existence of these species will be irreparably harmed."

In October, Judge Laporte granted a request by conservation groups for a temporary injunction to restrict deployment under the permit. Today's ruling orders the Navy to negotiate with NRDC and its co-plaintiffs on terms of a permanent injunction that would limit where, when and how the Navy can use LFA for testing and training. The injunction wouldn't prevent the Navy from using the system during war or "heightened threat conditions," as determined by the military.

Scientists have been increasingly alarmed in recent years about undersea noise pollution from high-intensity active sonar systems, which have been shown to harm and even kill whales and other marine life.

The mass stranding of multiple whale species in the Bahamas in March 2000 and the simultaneous disappearance of the region's entire population of beaked whales intensified these concerns. A federal investigation identified testing of a U.S. Navy mid-frequency active sonar system as the cause. Last September, mass strandings occurred in the Canary Islands as a result of military sonar, and in the Gulf of California as the likely result of an acoustic geophysical survey using extremely loud air guns.

Most recently, more than a dozen harbor porpoises were found dead on the beach near the San Juan Islands soon after the Navy tested active sonar in the Haro Strait in May. Videotape shows a pod of orca whales in the foreground behaving erratically as the Shoup, a U.S. Navy vessel, emits loud sonar blasts. Recent tests on one of the harbor porpoises revealed injuries consistent with acoustic trauma.

"The science is clear -- intense active sonar can kill whales, porpoises and fish," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society of the United States, one of the co-plaintiffs. "The Navy must find ways to test and train with the LFA system that do not needlessly damage marine life."

"The public has a strong interesting in minimizing, as much as possible, any disruption or injury to these creatures from exposure to the extremely loud and far-traveling naval sonar system," Judge Laporte wrote in her opinion. "Public concern has been heightened by incidents where exposure to another kind of Navy sonar has led to lethal strandings of whales on the beach, as in the Bahamas in 2000."

"The court properly ruled that the permit to deploy the LFA system violates federal law," said Andrew Sabey, a partner with the international firm of Morrison & Foerster, which is representing the plaintiffs NRDC, the Humane Society, the League for Coastal Protection, the Cetacean Society International, and the Ocean Futures Society and its president, Jean-Michel Cousteau.

"The marine environment is an invaluable resource that we all must share," said Jean-Michel Cousteau. "I am very pleased that good sense has prevailed. The court has taken an extremely valuable step to protect a part of our life support system from destruction."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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