Use of low-frequency sonar may expand in the future

The Navy has agreed to limit its use of low-frequency active sonar during testing and training exercises for the next five years. See the Associated Press story by Marcus Wohlsen in the Kitsap Sun.

LFA sonar involves loud blasts of low-frequency sound, which travel long distances in the ocean. It’s safe to say that advancements in this new technology are still being made, and this settlement is far from the end of the story. Most of the news reports I’ve seen have missed the point that this is a five-year permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the issue will come up again and again.

Years ago, the Navy planned to deploy LFA sonar on many of its ships, and it could return to those plans one day. For now, the Navy is planning to use it on four ships.

The story is complicated because it goes back to the original permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The permit, challenged by the Natural Resources Defense Council, would have allowed deployment of LFA over 75 percent of the world’s oceans. This settlement (PDF 360 kb) limits the deployment for testing, training and routine surveillance to the Western Pacific Ocean near Japan and The Philippines plus areas north and south of the Hawaiian Islands.

While it limits locations for testing and training, the agreement does not limit the use of LFA sonar during conditions of combat, potential combat or heightened threat conditions.

The settlement remains a trade-off, because there is no guarantee that marine mammals won’t be present in the areas of testing or training. One thing that would help is more research on the movement of whales and marine mammals, so the Navy can plan their operations with the least risk to sea life. With better understanding of both the technology and its effects of marine animals, the Navy could reasonably expect to expand its use of this technology to protect the nation’s interests. For details, check out the Navy’s LFA page.

Another issue worthy of attention is the proliferation of LFA sonar by other countries, including Canada, France and Great Britain.

Michael Jasny, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he would like to see the U.S. State Department work out agreements with other countries about when and how potentially damaging acoustic transmitters would be deployed.

“We’ve been trying to involve regional seas agreements, conventions and processes that would have guidelines for these systems,” Jasny told me. “In the Mediterranean, for example, habitat has been established for marine protected areas. What we’ve been advocating is the formulation of guidelines that would identify where sonar training should not occur. It would be ‘soft law” and would not impose an affirmative duty, but it would be a huge step in the right direction.”

To make sure there’s no confusion. LFA sonar is different from the mid-frequency sonar used by many ships since World War II. Mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in the deaths of whales, but the effects are much more localized. Mid-frequency sonar remains the subject of a lawsuit between NRDC and the Navy now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

3 thoughts on “Use of low-frequency sonar may expand in the future

  1. “…What we’ve been advocating is the formulation of guidelines that would identify where sonar training should not occur. It would be ‘soft law” and would not impose an affirmative duty, but it would be a huge step in the right direction.””

    How about cleaning up the waters the whales swim in…THAT would be a HUGE step of far more importance to their well being than controlling submarine sonar … curtailing training for national security purposes.

  2. Sharon, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as one of the environmental groups involved in the sonar case and lists these other groups as partners:

    International Fund for Animal Welfare
    Humane Society of the United States
    League for Coastal Protection
    Cetacean Society International
    Ocean Futures Society

    Take a look at the websites for these groups. Their efforts at protecting the whale habitat (including ocean cleanup) are far more extensive than just the sonar issue.

  3. Thank you, Charlie. I don’t mean to take away the good these agencies do.

    I’ve gotten ‘jaded’ by the whale story of use and abuse…and now the
    Lolita story:

    Some Do Gooder Groups may not be what they seem to be. Some manipulate the public into losing common sense and react emotionally without logic or reason. Following are some examples of human cruelty and indifference to what is best for the whale … only what the human wants… in my opinion.

    “…with no warning, Namu dies due to an infection from polluted water in his pen. It is July, 1966. He had survived 11 months in captivity….”

    …”…the whale seemed to come to life and struggled to free itself–jumping and smashing its tail and, according to observers, uttering ‘shrill whistles so intense that they could easily be heard above the surface of the water 300 feet away.’ Burich set off in a small boat to finish the job. He fired several rifle shells at the whale…but the orca did not die. …Moby Doll…would not eat….the whale…developed a skin disease from the low salinity of the harbor water, and continues to appear exhausted. The whale dies a month later, after 87 days in captivity. Newspapers around the world chronicle Moby Doll’s death. …”

    “…Shamu died at Sea World San Diego in August, 1971, after six years in captivity….”

    “…Lolita is caught during a highly controversial 1970 whale roundup at Penn Cove, Washington. Several whales die during this roundup and later wash up on a beach, with bellies slit and weighed down by steel chains. Several other whales from that set were sent to aquariums. Lolita alone survives. She lives and performs at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida….”

    Lolita is the only whale left alive from the whale destroyers, well and happy for 38 years! She is bonded to her trainers and others involved in her care.

    But now the local ‘whale save group’ wants to ‘free’ her to come back here for them to study. They want to study her death here. They KNOW full well Lolita will die in our polluted waters…and if that doesn’t kill her the loss of the happy life she knows and the people she has bonded with will kill her.
    Scientists around the world want to study her and can only do it by the guise of ‘freeing’ her to get her here to die.

    “…1997-98 Training Keiko to capture and eat live fish continues, together with overall conditioning. The current plan is to relocate Keiko to a protected sea pen in the North Atlantic, possibly in 1998, where he can continue to receive care and begin a final phase of rehabilitation,…”

    “…Saturday, December 13, 2003 Posted: 10:07 AM EST (1507 GMT)

    OSLO, Norway (AP) — Keiko, the killer whale made famous by the “Free Willy” movies, has died in Norwegian coastal waters where he remained after millions of dollars and a decade of work failed to coax him back to the open sea… (Keiko was 27), died Friday afternoon…in the Taknes fjord. He was old for an orca in captivity, though wild orca live an average of 35 years….”

    Sharon O’Hara

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