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Group Says Conditions For Navy Sonar Use Not Enough

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Aired 11/16/10

A federal agency requires the Navy to protect marine mammals during sonar and explosives training off the West Coast. But an environmental group thinks more protections are needed.

A federal agency requires the Navy to protect marine mammals during sonar and explosives training off the West Coast. But an environmental group thinks more protections are needed.

Class Mark Osborne supervises Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Randy Loewen, right, and Sonar Technician (Surface) 3rd Class Roland Stout, left, as they monitor contacts on an AN/SQQ-89V15 Surface Anti Submarine Combat System at sea.
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Above: Class Mark Osborne supervises Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Randy Loewen, right, and Sonar Technician (Surface) 3rd Class Roland Stout, left, as they monitor contacts on an AN/SQQ-89V15 Surface Anti Submarine Combat System at sea.

NOAA's Fisheries says the U.S. Navy must minimize impact to marine mammals when using sonar and explosives during training exercises off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California.

The Navy must establish a safety zone around vessels using sonar, have spotters shut down sonar operations if marine mammals are seen in safety zones and not detonate explosives when animals are detected nearby.

But Michael Jasny with the Natural Resources Defense Council said marine mammals can be affected at ranges well beyond the safety zones.

"Unfortunately this authorization allows the Navy to use sonar anywhere it wants within its vast training range regardless of where important habitat might be," said Jasny.

He said the authorization is similar to federal permission two years ago that allowed sonar testing off San Diego's coast.

Jasny said not all marine mammals have been tested to see how sonar and other sounds affect them.

Marine researcher Brandon Southall agrees. "We don't have any direct measurements of hearing in large whales. We've tested a minority of the species that exist," said Southall who operates his own company, Southall Environmental Associates (SEA), Inc.

Southall is collaborating with UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers to tag and monitor whales and dolphins off Southern California.

The project will also measure how the mammals react to sound in the ocean.

"From what we do know, animals have to be relatively close to sound sources to have their hearing damaged in a temporary or a permanent way," said Southall.

Southall said one goal of the project is to find out how mid-frequency sonar affects the mammals' behavior.

The project is part of a five-year study funded by the U.S. Navy and coordinated with NOAA. But independent academic and research groups are the lead investigators.

The Navy last month approved a plan to expand training and weapons testing in the sea and air in the Northwest Training Range Complex, the principal training ground for units based in Washington state.

The area off the Northwest coast is used by about 32 species of marine mammals including whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and the sea otter, as well as birds, fish and other animals.

The Navy requested authorization from NOAA because noise from mid-frequency sonar and explosives may affect the behavior of some marine mammals or cause temporary hearing loss.

NOAA says it does not expect the exercises to result in serious injury or death to marine mammals.

The Navy's environmental review estimated that active sonar exposure will disrupt behavioral patterns of about 129,000 marine mammals each year.

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