Bad Vibes

The U.S. Navy’s new ocean acoustical system has killer sound.
Joel Reynolds thinks it should be unplugged.

In 1994, when NRDC attorney Joel Reynolds heard rumors that the U.S. Navy had performed top-secret sound experiments off the California coast, he embarked on a one-man investigation. For nine months, he conducted numerous interviews and combed through hundreds of pages of public records — and eventually discovered that the Navy was developing a submarine-detection system based on “low frequency active” (LFA) sonar. Deployed from massive underwater speakers, these powerful sound waves were hardly benign. Marine mammals use sound to find food, breed, and make their annual migrations. Loud noises, such as those from supertankers, can disrupt their biological activities. But unlike ordinary sound waves, LFA sonar’s extreme bursts of energy can travel great distances and can, as Reynolds puts it, “light up with sound literally hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean at a time.” Reynolds also found out that the Navy had already field-tested LFA sonar in twenty-two operations — but had never studied its effects on marine life. Nor had the Navy applied for the permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts.

Reynolds then wrote a seven-page letter to the Navy identifying a host of laws it might be violating. Six months later — after several high-level meetings at the Pentagon — the Navy agreed to study LFA’s effects on the marine environment.

Today, at least ten countries, as well as NATO, are developing underwater sonar systems, and evidence suggests that this global proliferation could have dire consequences. In 1996, a NATO vessel was conducting sonar experiments off the coast of Greece, and twelve Cuvier’s beaked whales stranded themselves. In 2000, sixteen whales beached in the Bahamas. Researchers who performed necropsies on six carcasses found hemorrhaging around the eyes and ears, and concluded that the whales may have been victims of “acoustic resonance” — the intense vibration of air cavities within the body. The source of the sound was almost certainly a Navy sonar experiment. Since then, the entire resident population of beaked whales has disappeared from the area. This was the first irrefutable evidence that sonar could not only disrupt the whales’ life cycles, but also kill them.

The Navy now says it will use onboard observers and fish-finding technology to make sure no animals come within 1.5 miles of an active sonar deployment. Reynolds doesn’t think that is nearly enough. During tests near Alaska, the Navy calculated sound levels of 140 decibels 300 miles from the source ship. This, Reynolds points out, is loud: “a hundred times more intense than the noise aversion threshold for gray whales.” In the face of such evidence, renowned scientists, including E.O. Wilson, have publicly urged the Navy to withdraw its request to use LFA sonar. Last year, an email appeal by NRDC, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Pierce Brosnan, and James Taylor prompted 150,000 people to send letters to Congress asking that LFA be stopped.

NRDC is also fighting active sonar in court. Reynolds, attorney Andrew Wetzler, and policy analyst Michael Jasny sued the Navy after learning it had started a new active sonar research program in coastal areas. The lawsuit charges the Navy has failed — once again — to obtain the legally required permits or to study sonar’s impacts on marine life.

But the Navy is pressing ahead with LFA sonar. The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to approve the Navy’s application for a “small take” permit, which would allow it to “take,” by injury or harassment, tens of thousands of marine mammals. If issued, the Navy could operate LFA sonar in 80 percent of the world’s oceans. NRDC is already planning its legal challenge. “The problem of underwater noise pollution is growing exponentially,” Reynolds says. “Can an operation that involves ‘taking’ marine mammals over such a vast expanse of ocean really be considered small?”