Some sonar questions are answered, others remain

The Navy has decided not to conduct training exercises involving sonar within Puget Sound. That information was revealed in a proposed incidental take permit for the Northwest Training Range Complex, now subject to public review under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

While this decision no doubt will be a good thing for area marine mammal populations, I’m still a bit confused about the extent to which sonar may be used in non-training conditions.

Use of sonar in the testing of equipment and new technologies will come under a separate take permit for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, based at Keyport.

But, according to a statement I received from the Navy, that still leaves open the use of sonar for “safety and navigation,” “testing,” and “maintenance.”

As I understand the process, if the Navy were to harm marine mammals in one of these procedures without obtaining a take permit in advance, the Navy would be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The potential exists for such harm, given the experience earlier this year with the fast-attack submarine USS San Francisco. The submarine was found to be using sonar, which was picked up loudly on hydrophones miles away. The submarine was in the Strait of Juan de Fuca after it left Bremerton after undergoing repairs.

It appears there were no killer whales in the area. But nobody could be sure about other marine mammals, since it was dark during much of the time the sonar was being used.

To keep things in perspective, the Navy has made progress in its effort to come into compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. While there may always be disagreement about the level of protection necessary, the Navy is explaining its operations more and working cooperatively with other agencies to reduce the harm to wildlife.

It turns out that the proposed incidental take permit for the Northwest Training Range (PDF 1.3 mb) serves as a nice primer to help us understand Navy exercises, sonar technology, types of sonar and their specific uses, potential effects on marine mammals and the history of Navy exercises where marine mammals have been killed.

Similarly, a proposed permit for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (PDF 1.1 mb) offers extensive information about the use of sonar in testing advanced equipment and related activities.

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