By Ben White
The Animal Welfare Institute's (AWI) leadership in the fight against the Navy's Low Frequency Active sonar (LFA) is now in its fourth year. Ever since we organized volunteers to swim alongside the Navy test ship in February 1998 and block its blasting of humpback whales off Hawaii, we have explored every avenue to stop the planned deployment of this intensely loud sonar.
All indications are that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will grant a "small take authorization" for the Navy to begin using LFA in more than 80% of the world's oceans, even though the numbers of sea creatures affected are anything but small. The Navy's own Environmental Impact Statement predicts that more than 10% of some species could be harmed.
Intended to find almost silent diesel electric enemy submarines, LFA emits some of the loudest sounds ever created. The source level of the device is 240 decibels, a million times more intense than a jet plane on takeoff. Even the Navy agrees that this system is very loud. Our disagreement is on what effects the system will have on sea creatures worldwide and on the feasibility of using passive sonar instead. Rear Admiral Malcolm Fages testified last year before Congress that new Navy passive sonar is ten times more sensitive than previous instruments and can find any enemy in the oceans. But the Navy still argues that LFA is irreplaceable.
Even though NMFS has done everything possible to grease the skids for the Navy's deployment of LFA, there is still one more review within the agency that might stop the project. This is the consideration of whether the device will cause any increased jeopardy to any endangered species or its habitat. In order to give a green light to LFA, there would have to be a no jeopardy finding.
To render a finding, NMFS officials are required to review all pertinent scientific research. AWI organized a massive search of data banks to find any studies into the effects of low frequency sound on marine mammals, fish, fish eggs, larvae, and other ocean creatures, and we found some very sobering information. Based on data in the literature and his own experiments, Mardi Hastings of Ohio State University suggested that the maximum safe level of sound that bony fish can be exposed to is 150 decibels (letter to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), dated March 23, 1992). Operating at 240 decibels, LFA sonar could spread sound louder than 150 decibels over many hundreds of thousands of square miles.
The Navy may be unconcerned about the dead whales it left behind in the Bahamas and the Canary Islands from testing of active sonar, but the specter of a massive fishery die-off should be of great concern to US fishing fleets and to our fishery dependent allies.
At the recent IWC meeting in London, AWI gave away t-shirts that said: "KILLING WHALES? We don't care-we're the US Navy." During a morning tea break, delegates discovered the boxes of shirts with a FREE sign attached. Within minutes every one was gone.
AWI's companion organization, the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, hopes Congress and government agencies and auditors will get involved to expose LFA's faulty technology, unsound science, and waste of taxpayer money.
CAPTION: Monk seals are highly susceptible to threats, including LFA. (photo by Dr. McVey, NOAA).