- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Environmental groups filed suit yesterday to stop the Navy from using a powerful new sonar system for detecting enemy submarines, saying the intense underwater sounds can harm whales and dolphins.
The coalition, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service in U.S. District Court in San Francisco to block the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active sonar.
Last month, the fisheries service gave the Navy a five-year exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which protects whales and dolphins.
"Despite the public and scientific outcry, the National Marine Fisheries Service, under whatever pressure, has licensed the U.S. Navy to basically break the law. It is a license to kill," said Jean-Michel Cousteau, founder and president of Ocean Futures Society, a member of the coalition.
Gordon Helm, spokesman for the fisheries service, said the agency has required the Navy to comply with some restrictions, such as not using the sonar within 12 nautical miles of the coast.
He said the changes would minimize the system's effect on animals. "We consider that to be negligible. If we find out differently we can halt the authorization," Mr. Helm said.
A Navy representative did not immediately return calls for comment.
The Navy said in July that the $300 million system is important to national security because nations such as Russia, Germany and China are developing superquiet submarines to avoid traditional detection methods.
The lawsuit said the Navy's own studies show the new sonar system generates sounds up to 140 decibels that can be detected more than 300 miles away.
Opponents of the sonar say they fear sound that loud can disrupt marine mammals' feeding, breeding, nursing, communication and other behavior.
"The organisms we're talking about have in their heads a system for seeing with sound that's just as good as our system for seeing with light," George Woodwell, director of Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, said of whales and dolphins. "If we flood the oceans with sound that has enormous energy, we're killing them."
Environmentalists note that within hours after the Navy deployed a powerful midrange sonar during a submarine detection exercise near the Bahamas in 2000, at least 16 whales and two dolphins beached themselves. Scientists found hemorrhaging around the brain and ear bones injuries consistent with exposure to extremely loud sounds. Eight whales died.
The Humane Society, the League for Coastal Protection and the Cetacean Society International also are plaintiffs in the suit.

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