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Supreme Court to Review Rulings on Navy’s Use of Sonar

By Navy Seaman William Selby
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 26, 2008 – The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a series of lower court rulings that restrict the Navy’s use of sonar in training exercises off the coast of Southern California, a U.S. military official said June 24.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case,” Navy Rear Adm. Lawrence S. Rice, director of the Chief of Naval Operations Environmental Readiness Division, said in a teleconference with online journalists and bloggers. “As you know, the Navy’s been unhappy with the district courts’ series of crippling restrictions that they’ve given us on the use of mid-frequency active sonar.”

The restrictions expand the 200-yard “shutdown zone” that the Navy uses to 2,200 yards, Rice said. “Our 200 yards is based on a number of scientific experiments that were performed on dolphins and belugas out in San Diego,” he explained. “The 2,200-yard number that the court is using isn’t based on anything.”

As a result of a stranding event in the Bahamas in March 2000, Rice said, Navy officials realized that certain conditions negatively affect beaked whales: steep bathymetry areas such as the continental slopes and sea canyons, the number of vessels operating mid-frequency sonar in the same area over extended periods, limited egress routes and the historical presence of a surface duct, a layer of air in which temperature and humidity changes cause microwave energy originating within the layer to be refracted and trapped along the surface.

The Navy has spent more than $100 million over the past five years on marine mammal research, Rice said, and has taken 29 measures to ensure the safety of the marine mammals.

“Since we’ve been employing those protective measures, there have been zero strandings associated with Navy sonar despite a number of attempts [by nongovernmental organizations] to pin them on the Navy,” Rice said. “So the Navy’s position is those 29 protective measures are working.”

One measure is conducting aerial reconnaissance before large exercises, looking for big whales that might be in the way. “[We] have the ability to adjust that on the fly,” the admiral said.

Rice added that the Navy also uses a protective-measures assessment protocol, a planning tool to prevent a stranding incident.

And since 2000, Rice said, the Navy has run a submarine commanders course in the Autec Range in the Bahamas every other month in which sonar is used in the presence of beaked whales. No strandings have been reported, he said.

“All the destroyer, cruiser, and frigate commanding officers will tell you, when they turn sonar on, all the dolphins head their way and start bow surfing,” he added. “In the case of beaked whales, lots of times they’ll leave the area and as soon as the sonar stops, they’ll come back.”

Since being sued by the National Resource Defense Council, the Navy has complied with all the restrictions sanctioned by the courts, Rice said. Now, he said, all the Navy can do is wait on the Supreme Court ruling.

“In the meantime, we’ll continue complying with the restrictions that the courts and the 9th District have levied on us,” the admiral said.

(Navy Seaman William Selby works in the New Media directorate of the Defense Media Activity.)

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Navy Rear Adm. Lawrence S. Rice

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