Debate over Navy sonar can be uncomfortable, but worthwhile

Sea trials this week for the newly repaired submarine USS San Francisco in the Strait of Juan de Fuca once again raises the question of whether the Navy can lessen its harm to marine life while adequately training for warfare.

<i>USS San Francisco after underwater collision, Guam, Jan. 8, 2005.</i><small> U.S. Navy photo</small>
USS San Francisco after underwater collision, Guam, Jan. 8, 2005. U.S. Navy photo

Check out my story in today’s Kitsap Sun, where I recount some of the history of this debate, which isn’t about to end soon.

We’ve covered this question many times in Water Ways. (Just put “sonar” into the search engine of this blog to go back more than a year.) The Navy won the first round in the legal theater when the U.S. Supreme Court (PDF 308 kb) reversed lower federal courts and decided that it would not second-guess the Navy until more studies are done.

I know there are many people who believe it’s an open-and-shut case, that the debate should be over, that the Navy’s mission is too important to allow interference by environmentalists, lawyers, courts or politicians.
I believe, however, that the debate is worthwhile, provided we bring knowledge to the table, though it may be uncomfortable at times.

As a result of the Shoup incident in 2003, the Navy stopped using sonar in Puget Sound except on rare occasions, such as this week. It appears the move was good for whales and dolphins, and I have not heard of any profound regrets from the Navy.

The Navy has undertaken a great deal of research about the impacts of whales on sea life, as it should, and Navy commanders have committed to making the information public. From that, scientists can debate what is and is not safe. In the process, we all can learn.

OK, there are also debates within the debate — such as whether the studies are independent enough of Navy influence — but that’s another question.

While the public does not need to know all about Navy tactics and capabilities, I believe everyone is served by discussions that can lead to either 1) better protections for the environment, or 2) knowing what environmental sacrifices we are making to protect our country.

Maybe it’s my training and experience as a reporter, but I don’t believe any one person in this debate is totally right. I believe, however, that even folks with an extreme point of view can learn from this debate and contribute something to the discussion.
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In closing, I’d like to respond to those who have criticized my stories for not containing enough “facts” or else brushing lightly over the details.

In the first case, I have a relatively good relationship with Navy officials, but (as anyone involved with the Navy knows), the Navy is very cautious about the information it releases, so often my stories are not as complete as I would like. If something is speculation or opinion, I try to label it as such.

The issue of details is often a judgment call. Looking back on my early career, I often filled my stories with details that left the average reader behind while satisfying a limited number of experts. Now, I tend to go the other way, trying to put things in context and leaving out a lot of details. Over the past year and a half, I have been fortunate to write this blog, Watching Our Water Ways, where I can post links to documents and Web sites for those who like to dig deeper. I hope that satisfies more people in the long run.

One thought on “Debate over Navy sonar can be uncomfortable, but worthwhile

  1. Though almost no one will admit it, the Marine Mammal Act has done and is still doing a whole lot of harm to Puget Sound. With the proliferation of marine mammals after the Act went into effect has come the downward slide of salmon runs and of commercial and recreational fishing, and a whole lot of pollution as well. Marine mammals create a lot of waste but no one will tell, if it has even been studied, how much e-coli is caused by them as compared to that created by human and animal runoff.
    Salmon fishing used to be a matter of casting a line into the water and getting a strike after a short wait. Now a strike, if a fisherman is lucky enough to get one, yields a salmon already half-eaten by a waiting seal.
    But this damage to the environment isn’t enough. Now our national defense is being hampered by environmental restrictions and proposed restrictions on Naval training and maneuvers in the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
    The Navy should be able to do whatever it needs to do to defend us without being hampered by these restrictions. National defense must come first.

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