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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Trying to Silence Navy Sonar

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Larry S. Carlson)

A coalition of conservation organizations and indigenous groups are suing the U.S. Navy. The group alleges the Navy and federal regulators have failed to protect marine mammals in a huge warfare training area off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Zak Smith, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.


GELLERMAN: Well, marine mammal, including dolphins, on the west coast are also in trouble. While they’re protected under federal law, the U.S. Navy is permitted to kill, injure and harass tens of thousands of the animals a year at its vast anti-submarine warfare site off the Pacific northwest coast. Now a coalition of environmental organizations and indigenous groups is suing the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

They charge the Navy’s use of sonar harms the marine mammals and violates federal law. Attorney Zak Smith is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He works on its Marine Mammal Protection Project in Santa Monica, California.

Zak Smith, NRDC staff Attorney with their Marine Mammal Protection Project, in Santa Monica, CA. (Photo: NRDC)

SMITH: The Navy's range is the size of the state of California. And currently, NMFS, the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn’t set aside one square inch where that activity shouldn't take place, and that’s simply what we’re seeking, is that NMFS set aside biologically rich areas, like the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where sonar won’t be allowed to be conducted.

GELLERMAN: So what affect can sonar have on marine mammals?

SMITH: Sonar can have a wide-ranging affect on marine mammals. It can be anything from a significant behavioral disturbance on one side of the range, which is a disruption of normal behaviors such as feeding or migrating or mating, to the other end of the spectrum which would be temporary or permanent hearing loss, which for marine mammals is the equivalent of to us going blind. And also of course, just death, can result.

GELLERMAN: Does the Navy contest or acknowledge these effects?

SMITH: The Navy acknowledges these effects, absolutely. They recognize that these impacts occur and that’s why the National Marine Fisheries Service has said that the Navy is allowed to have these harmful impacts on over 120,000 times per year in that training area.

GELLERMAN: Now these marine mammals include whales, dolphins, porpoises…

SMITH: Absolutely. You have the seven resident killer whales, which are a very endangered species that lives in the Puget Sound area, but also goes out into the open ocean, they’re a very big concern for us. There’s migratory species of grey whales and others that pass through the area. And then there are those species like harbor porpoises that live there year round.

GELLERMAN: The Navy says: ‘Hey look, we’re just going to do this for a few hours a year, in a very small area with one single ship-board sonar system - what’s the big deal?'

SMITH: Well, there’s actually more activities going on than what the Navy would say. That might be true with respect to shipboard, but there are also, they do what is called dipping with sonar from helicopters and there’s other sources, so it’s not just ship activities.

With respect to those minimal amounts of activity - even if they are minimal - that just begs the question of well if you have an area the size of the state of California and you’re only going to be training for a minimal amount of time, you should be able to find within that very, very large area a place to train that will lessen the impacts on marine mammals. The agency has failed to do that here, we think that’s against the law. And we’re going to force them to do it.

GELELRMAN: Zak Smith is with the NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, which is suing the U.S. Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service. We contacted the agency for a response. A spokesperson couldn’t comment due to the lawsuit.



Zak Smith's blog

Incidental Take Authorizations

Sonar and Marine Mammals

Navy’s LFA webpage


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