Navy to limit peacetime sonar use

Agreement is reached with nature groups, who say system harms whales

October 14, 2003|By Kenneth R. Weiss | Kenneth R. Weiss,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Navy has agreed to limit the peacetime use of a new high-intensity sonar to areas of the western Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan as part of a federal court settlement with conservationists, who contend that the sonar may inflict deadly harm on whales, dolphins and other marine animals.

In the settlement, released yesterday, the Navy agreed to restrict testing and training missions that involve a new submarine-detecting sonar to waters off the coasts of North Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines. The Navy previously had won permission to sweep about 75 percent of the world's oceans with the sonar system.

The settlement is expected to be approved this week by U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco, who has sought to balance military readiness with environmental protections.

In August, Laporte banned the use of the low-frequency sonar in most parts of the world's oceans and ordered military and federal regulators to meet with environmental lawyers and their experts to designate places where the Navy could test the system.

The ruling comes as scientists have amassed a growing body of evidence that another type of military sonar was responsible for the deaths of whales and dolphins in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands and most recently along the U.S.-Canadian border near Washington state's Puget Sound.

Some scientists have said intense bursts of sonic waves can shake and tear delicate tissues of the ears, brain and other organs causing hemorrhaging, disorientation and death. Others, writing in last week's edition of the journal Nature, have said that deep-diving whales and dolphins may panic at loud sounds and shoot to the surface too fast, damaging their internal organs with expanding gas bubbles similar to human divers who die from decompression sickness, known as "the bends."

Lt. Cmdr. Cappy Surette, a Navy spokesman, said low-frequency sonar is a vital component of the Navy's anti-submarine warfare capability.

Naomi Rose, a marine biologist with the Humane Society, applauded the conclusion of the talks: "These negotiations show how the law can work for national security as well as for environmental protection."

The Los Angeles Times is Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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