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Ocean Issues Special Report

Low Frequency Active Sonar

Underwater LFAS speaker array
(Photo courtesy US Navy)

This page includes:

  • Recent News: September Stranding May Be Linked to Sonar Impacts, restraining order rulings, European LFAS deployment. [GO THERE]
  • Summary of NMFS Final Rules, released July 2002 [GO THERE]
    • News Reports in the wake of NMFS ruling, July 2002 [GO THERE]
  • Action options [GO THERE]
  • Background on the LFAS system from the archives, including links to Navy and environmental activist reports and a narrative summary of the history of the program. [GO THERE]
  • Other Web Resources on LFAS [GO THERE]

Recent News

Britain Deploys First of Six Ships with LFA Sonar - The British Ministry of Defense has deployed its LFA system, Sonar 2087, on the first of six ships scheduled to be outfitted with the sytem. Source: The Scotsman, 12/6/04 [READ ARTICLE]

International Concern Over Sonar Builds - The European Union, the Conservation Union, and others have stepped up pressure to slow deployment of LFA sonars around the world. Source: The San Francisco Chronicle, 12/13/04 [READ ARTICLE]

NOAA Submits New Rule for LFAS Use - NOAA Fisheries has released the text of a modified rule covering the deployment of LFAS. The modified rule incorporates changes that Congress made to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2003, which removed permit limits that had previously constrained permits to small geographic areas and small numbers of animals. Source: Federal Register, 6/29/04 [SEE FEDERAL REGISTER NOTICE] [SEE NRDC COMMENTS ON RULE(doc)]

Cetaceans Take Navy to Court Over Wartime LFAS Use - A Federal Appeals Court heard oral arguments challenging the Navy's stance that they need only prepare EIS's for their LFAS testing and training missions, while operations during wartime are exempt from such oversight. Adding to the groundbreaking case are the plaintiffs: the case is partially aimed at establishing legal ground for suits to be entered on behalf of dolphins, whales, and porpoises affected by government actions. Source: Cetacean Community website, 2/04 [READ REPORT]

Study Finds Tissue Damage in Whales Exposed to Sonar - A study reported in current issue of Nature provides the first evidence of the mechanism by which navy sonars may be causing physical damage in beaked whales, leading some to beach and die. Necropsies on whales beached in the Canary Islands show lesions caused by the formation and expansion of bubbles in the tissues of internal organs. Such bubble formation is the cause of "the bends," which human divers experience when they surface too rapidly; it has long been thought that whale physiology protects them from the bends, even on rapid ascents. It is not clear whether the whales are startled into surfacing exceedingly rapidly, or whether the physical force of the sound pressure waves triggers the formation of bubbles in the whale tissue. "This is the best data we've ever seen from a sonar-related stranding," said Roger Gentry, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Acoustics Team. He said NOAA will hold a workshop this year with the authors and others in the field to assess the new information and try to reach scientific conclusions. While the incident being investigated invovled a mid-frequency active sonar system, it will doubtless affect consideration of the newer low-frequency active systems currently being tested by the US and British Navies. Sources: Nature Science News, 10/9/03 (best brief article) [READ ARTICLE] New Scientist, 10/9/03 (very good, details clear) [READ ARTICLE] Los Angelse Times, 10/9/03 (detailed overview, many comments) [READ ARTICLE] Washington Post, 10/9/03 (includes comment from NOAA and Navy) [READ ARTICLE]

Navy, NRDC Agree on Limited LFAS Deployment - In an agreement that should end the ongoing legal battle over deployment of the Navy's Low Frequency Active Sonar, the litigants have agreed on a plan to allow deployment for training purposes in a relatively limited area of the western Pacific Ocean. The area was chosen because of the relative lack of large whale populations; the agreement also specifies seasonal restrictions on sonar use to protect migrating whales. The agreement applies only to peacetime training and testing missions; during wartime, there will be no restrictions. (It is not clear whether the Navy regards the current worldwide "war on terror" to be a window for more widespread deployment; North Korean subs are a particular concern to Pentagon officials). Source: Seattle Times, 10/12/03 [READ ARTICLE]
The Federal Court Ruling on the case is available for download [DOWNLOAD RULING(pdf)]
NRDC has posted its summer 2003 legal brief, used in the final arguments, online [READ BRIEF]
Related: European Parliament Members Call for EU Ban on Active Sonar - Several members of the European Parliament, led by British MEP Carolline Lucas, have delivered to EU headquarters in Brussels a petition with 100,000 signatures and supported by environmental organizations worldwide. They are calling for the EU to ban use of active sonars, due to concerns about the impact of the loud sounds on ocean life.
Update June 04: Navy Files Motion to Vacate Agreement - In the wake of Congressional approval during the 2003 session of new definitions of harassment and small takes of marine mammals, the Navy has filed a motion in federal court seeking to change the terms of the limited LFAS deployment. A hearing is scheduled for September 2004 on the motion.

Congressional Initatives Aim for Weaker MMPA that will Allow LFAS to Move Forward - The Bush Administration is pursuing at least two, and possibly three, different legislative avenues to change some key language in the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the changes would provide a much broader window within which the Navy could act to deploy the LFAS without legal challenge. Some of the new language could also apply to industrial operations, such as seismic surveys. For more info on this important developing story, see
[ Special Report: Military Environmental Exemptions]

Sonar Triggers Whale, Dolphin Panic off Vancouver Island - On May 5th, the US Navy Guided Missile Destroyer "Shoup" DDG 86 conducted sonar operations for five hours in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in Haro Strait near Vancouver Island, creating one of the most obvious displays of marine mammal harassment that experienced observers have ever seen, anywhere. After the Navy vessel fired up a mid-frequency active sonar system, dozens of dolphins were seen dashing away at high speed, while a resident orca pod broke off feeding, gathered together in a behavior normally used for defense against predators, then (very uncharacteristically) broke up and dashed away in two directions. Since the incident happened in an area popular among whale watchers, the eyewitness reports of extreme distress are among the most solid, direct evidence that high-intensity sounds disrupt cetacean behavior. Several days later, up to ten dolphins were found dead on beaches, some with bleeding from the eyes and mouth (which could indicate acoustic impact as the cause; autopsies are being done). Reports indicate that marine mammals up to 20 miles away were affected, though the Navy's standard procedure is to suspend operations only when cetaceans are sighted from the ship. The sounds of the sonar seem to have been gradually ramped up (again, standard procedure, intended to drive whales away from the noise before it can hurt them), increasing in intensity until they were audible through hulls of small craft, and by some reports, through the air. The sonar system was shut down after the ship received reports from other vessels about the disruptions being caused. The Navy is investigating the incident, while the NRDC suggests that any activity having such dramatic impacts should have been proceeded by an EIS. Sources: Bremerton Sun, 5/8/03 [READ ARTICLE] Bremerton Sun, 5/12/03 [READ ARTICLE] Center for Whale Research Press Release (includes photos), 5/12/03 [READ PRESS RELEASE]
CBC, 5/8/03 [READ ARTICLE] KOMO-TV report, 5/12/03 (focuses on strandings) [READ REPORT] [VIEW VIDEO]
Related: Field report of dead beaked whale beached 6 days after mid-range sonar was heard. Source: Center for Whale Research, 2/2/03 [READ REPORT]
Related: Radio Interview Featuring Acoustician Michael Stocker and Tour Boat Guide who experienced the event
- Interview by Caroline Casey, "Visionary Activist;" Stocker segment begins about 8 minutes in. [LISTEN, 1ST HALF(ra)] [LISTEN, 2ND HALF(ra)]

Plaintiffs File Brief in Federal Court LFAS Case - On June 30, the Federal Court that issued a restraining order limiting Low Frequency Active Sonar deployment will take up the merits of the case. In preparation for that, the Plaintiffs, a coalition of environmental organizations led by the NRDC, has filed its brief, detailing the perceived legal shortcomings of the decisions by the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service to approve deployment. The Brief is a very readable and detailed account of the issue, including overviews of research considered and dismissed by the Navy and NMFS. Source: NRDC, May 2003 [READ BRIEF]

Media coverage of LFAS increases in wake of court rulings - News of court restraining orders and injunctions has led to a series of in-depth reports on LFAS and ocean sound issues. Among the coverage:
LA Times Sunday Magazine feature - Includes extensive interviews with those involved in the Bahamas strandings 12/8/02 [READ ARTICLE]
Australian Dateline TV feature - "Sonic Victims", including interviews with US and Australian environmentalists and congressional advocates of LFAS (prepared in the wake of more beaked whale strandings in Australia during US/Aussie Naval maneuvers), 1/22/03 [TRANSCRIPT]

Beaked Whales Strand in Australia - A series of strandings of beaked whales has spurred questions in western Australia, since these rare whales have also beached in association with sonar tests in the Bahamas and Canary Islands. The US Navy was conducting joint exercises with the Australian Navy at the time of the beachings, and active seismic exploration is also in progress in the area. No dead whales were preserved in time to conduct conclusive autopsies for sound impacts; rather, these whales had simpler stomach investigations (heads must be frozen within hours to preserve tissues that can indicate whether acoustic trauma, ie sound-induced hemorrhaging, occurred). Source: Australia Broadcasting Company, 1/20/03 [READ ARTICLE] Dateline TV feature, 1/22/03 [TRANSCRIPT]

Grey Whale Sound Tests Halted - A federal judge ruled on January 24 that a research project designed to test a new whale-finding sonar system should be postponed until a more complete environmental impact assessment has been completed. Environmental advocates hailed the ruling, after contending that the sound levels proposed by researchers would have posed unnecessary and dangerous risks to pregnant whales migrating to birthing lagoons. Researchers contend that the tests are designed to determine effective levels for whale-protection measures to be used by ships, Navy sonar systems, and seismic exploration teams. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 1/24/03 [READ ARTICLE]
Reuters, 1/27/03 [READ ARTICLE]
Related: Grey Whale Sound Tests Alarm Activists - A series of tests scheduled to take place off the California coast in January have triggered outrage from cetacean advocates. Sonic blasts of up to 180dB will be directed toward migrating grey whales, and other species, to test proposed mitigation measures designed to encourage whales to move away from loud Navy and seismic exploration noises. The January tests are part of a five-year research project which has been granted the right to "take" (harass or accidently kill) up to 3000 grey whales and 700 sea lions and seals in California, as well as tens of thousands of various species of cetaceans in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. Scientists will tag some whales with acoustic monitors, to determine the levels of sound they hear, then track their responses to a range of sound emissions (none of which will be low frequency); they will also be testing whether a high-frequency sonar is effective in spotting whales. Navy and industrial programs have proposed that "warning" cetaceans with such a ramp-up of sound, and using sonar to spy them, will protect them from the more dangerous low-frequency sounds of sonar and seismic testing. The fragile state of the Pacific grey whale population, which has seen a dramatic drop in population over recent years, is cause for concern to many activists, who only recently became aware of the scope of the tests and the approved "take" (which is, in the eyes of researchers and the National Marine Fisheries Service, issuer of the permit, considered a worst case scenario of numbers being harassed, with death considered not likely but possible). Many feel that the scale of the impact (affecting a large proportion of the fragile population) demands a full Environmental Impact process. Source: various email and listserv correspondence, December 2002. Original permit online (Yahoo groups registration required): [READ PERMIT] Press Release announcing suit to halt tests, 1/6/03 [READ PRESS RELEASE]

European Navies Plan Wide Deployment of LFAS - While the US Navy's deployment of new generation active sonars is slowed by active public participation, European allies are proceeding with much larger sonar programs. France, Germany, and the UK all have active sonar programs. The UK is buying 21 LFA sonars to equip 23 frigates, as compared to only four LFA-equipped ships from the US (and only two in the immediate future). British tests took place this summer in the Bay of Biscay, while American active sonars were being tested off the Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland. Britain's Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society worries that this might explain why sperm whales are now avoiding that ancient western migration route and ending up in the North Sea. Source: The Guardian, 10/30/02 [READ ARTICLE]
Related: UK Sonar 2087 (British LFAS) sites:

Courts Place Restraining Orders on LFAS and Seismic Survey - The last week of October was a trick for the Navy and seismic surveyors, and a treat for environmentalists seeking to quiet down the oceans. In separate decisions, two federal courts ruled that extremely loud new technologies deserved greater scrutiny. The first ruling applies to a single research project in the Sea of Cortez, where two beaked whales were found dead not far from a research vessel studying sea-floor geology with high-intensity sound; the judge ruled that the project must stop until an environmental impact statement is prepared. The second, and more dramatic ruling, halts deployment of the Navy's Low Frequency Active Sonar. Here, the judge ruled that the new system is likely to be a source of widespread harassment of marine mammals; she called the Navy and environmental groups together to come up with a more limited deployment pending the full trial, scheduled for June.
Source: Various media reports, October 28-31, 2002
LFAS ruling stories (all 10/31/02): LA Times [READ ARTICLE] ENS [READ ARTICLE] AP [READ ARTICLE]
Seismic testing ruling story: ENS, 10/28/02 [READ ARTICLE]
New LA Times Magazine feature on LFA 12/8/02 [READ ARTICLE]
New US and World Report article on LFA and ocean noise 12/23/02 [READ ARTICLE]

Court Rejects US Government Claim that Environmental Laws Only Apply Within 3 Miles of Shore - A Federal Court in San Diego has rejected a radical new interpretation of environmental law favored by the Bush Administration. The Justice Department had argued in court that the National Environmental Policy Act, and possibly other environmental laws, do not apply in waters outside the 3-mile territorial limit. The Defense Department and other agencies have lined up behind this new interpretation by the Department of Justice, first revealed in a court challenge to new tests of a LWAD Sonar system (a variation on the LFAS designed for use closer to shore). Source: The Los Angeles Times, 9/20/02 [READ FULL ARTICLE] [SEE LA TIMES OP-ED ON THIS ISSUE] [READ NRDC NEWSLETTER ARTICLE]

For a bit of fun, check out Mark Fiore's cartoon on LFAS (requires Flash) [GO THERE]

Operational Details: How SURTASS LFA Sonar Works

The typical Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) Low Frequency Active (LFA) Sonar signal is not a constant tone, but rather a transmission of various signal types that vary in frequency and duration (including continuous wave (CW) and frequency-modulated (FM) signals). Signal bandwidth is approximately 30 Hz. A complete sequence of sound transmissions is referred to as a pulse, or ping, and can last for as short as 6 seconds to as long as 100 seconds. The time between pings is typically from 6 to 15 minutes and the average duty cycle (ratio of sound "on" time to total time) can be controlled but, due to the design limit of the transducers, cannot be greater than 20 percent. The typical duty cycle is 10 to 15 percent. With two vessels, there would normally be 6 SURTASS LFA sonar missions in each of these oceanic basins (or equivalent shorter missions totaling no more than 432 hours of transmission/vessel/ year {ed note: this amounts to just under 40 hours per month}), or a total of 12 active sonar missions per year over the 5-year period of the regulations. (from the NMFS Executive Summary)

Each LFA sonar system consists of 18 bathtub-sized speakers that are suspended behind a single vessel. The source level of each speaker is approximately 215 dB. (There is some debate about whether the Navy's stated signal intensities are, in fact, the upper limit of the system; some observers suggest that the peak levels have remain classified,and levels of up to 245dB have been mentioned in some reports.) The sounds they produce have been likened to a space shuttle launch; they are designed to travel hundreds to thousands of miles, bounce of subs, and be received by a set of underwater microphones also towed by the boat.

The Navy considers this system essential to detection of new "quiet" subs that are not audible to existing sensitive listening systems. Critics contend that other less invasive technologies are available.

The Navy plans to deploy one ship in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic/Mediterranean/Persian Gulf region. Two more ships capable of deploying two more full LFAS systems are due for delivery in 2007. A complementary system designed for use in littoral waters (near-shore) is under development, with tests ongoing.

NOTE: European development of LFAS - While the US Navy's deployment of the LFAS system has been relatively closely monitored, thanks to US freedom of information and public comment procedures, other NATO countries, including France, The Netherlands, England, and Germany, are developing low frequency sonar systems with far less public scrutiny.

NOTE: Mid-frequency Active Sonars - Several well-publicized strandings have been associated with use of a related, mid-freqency, active sonar system, which has been more widely deployed b the US and NATO since the late 1980s. This system uses a higher frequency source tone, and operates at similarly high intensities. It appears that at least in situations with specific bathemetric conditions (ie water depth, sea floor profile, etc.), beaked whales in particular may be sensitive to acoustic impacts. There have been credible reports (by the Navy and also by independent researchers published in the journal Nature) that organ hemmoraging or tissue lesions may be triggered by exposure to intense sound. No similar strandings have been reported in the vicinity of LFAS testing, so far.

What Sound Level is Safe?

There is much debate about how loud a sound will be disruptive and/or damaging to whales and other ocean creatures. Since whales sometimes vocalize at levels about 180dB, it has been suggested that any other sound source at this intensity should be no problem (according to the Navy, LFAS signals attenuate to 180dB outside the proposed "buffer zone" of operation).

Here are a few links from outside researchers which address these questions. Source: Stop LFAS network archives

  • A summary of research on cetacean responses to sound, from Australians for Animals and the Fund for Animals. [GO THERE]

  • An equation for calculating sound attenuation in seawater over distance (disagrees with Navy formula) [GO THERE]
  • For a scientific theoretical argumentation that challenges the Navy's
    reasoning, see Naomi Rose's discussion with NMFS re: sound levels. [GO THERE]
  • To understand the greater moral/legal significance of imposing sound level
    thresholds against an artificial criteria which seeks to define a minimal
    harm acceptability level to marine mammals - go read Lanny Sinkin's
    response to the EIS. [GO THERE]
  • To understand why all of the above discussions site important
    contradictions, read Dr. Marsha Green's evaluation as addressed to Congress:
    [GO THERE]

Summary of NMFS Final Rules

NOTE: In the summer of 2003, after this NMFS Final Rule was successfully challenged in Federal Court, the Navy initiated a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement process. Under court order, the Navy and National Resources Defense Council are to negotiate a mutually agreeable new testing phase for the system.

On July 15, 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service released its Final Rule on the Navy's request for an exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to deploy its Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar (SURTASS LFA sonar) system. This exemption will allow for a 5-year deployment on two Navy vessels, authorizes "the unintentional incidental harassment of marine mammals in connection with this activity," and concludes that the system is "not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of threatened or endangered species under the jurisdiction of NMFS or destroy or adversely modify critical habitats that has been designated for those species. Because of the offshore location of SURTASS LFA sonar, the Navy determined that it is unlikely that endangered or threatened species or designated critical habitat under the jurisdiction of the USFWS would be adversely affected." (quotes from the NMFS Executive Summary)

The NMFS has set a number of modest restrictions on operating the system, including:

  • The sonar system will be shut down (or not turned on) when marine mammals or sea turtles are within 2km (about 1.2 miles), considered the "buffer zone". The NMFS has set 1km as the "safety zone" the distance at which the received intensity of the signal is 180dB, a level which the NMFS considers safe. The Navy will employ visual and sonar detection, which is expected to be allow near 100 percent detection at 2 km.
  • The upper limit of frequency for the system will be set at 330Hz, rather than the 500 Hz requested by the Navy; 300Hz is the threshold above which some research suggests that "acoustic resonance" may be triggered within whale organs (such resonance may have been the cause of the hemorrhaging in whales stranded after a Navy test in the Bahamas in 2000). Pending the completion of further study of acoustic resonance, currently underway by the Office of Naval Research, the NMFS calls for the extended 1km buffer zone around the safety zone. (That is, the sonar will be shut down when marine mammals or turtles are within 2km, rather than the 1 km considered acoustically safe.)
  • LFA will be prohibited within 12 miles of all coastlines and in designated marine mammal biologically important areas.
  • The NMFS will conduct annual reviews, based on Navy self-monitoring, to assess impacts and may renew, modify, or suspend authorization. NOAA Fisheries can also immediately revoke the LFA authorization if it is determined that impacts on marine mammals are more than negligible.

It will take about a month to exchange the final paperwork between the Navy and NMFS, at which time the Navy will be free to deploy the system. Environmental groups are considering legal action to delay deployment; the National Resources Defense Council is likely to take the lead. Among the widespread objections voiced by critics are that the proposed mitigation measures are untested, that the original field tests were conducted at much lower intensities, and that the system is militarily unnecessary.

Links for source material:

NMFS sound research web site - Use drop down menu at top right to choose "SURTASS LFA"; includes links to press release, and sections of final rule (executive summary, history, biological opinion, public comments, etc) [GO THERE]

PDFs from NMFS:
Press Release (July 15, 2002) [DOWNLOAD PDF]
Executive Summary of Final Rule [DOWNLOAD PDF]

Text version of Executive Summary - [GO THERE]

News Reports, 2002/3

Los Angeles Times Magazine - 12/8/03 story featuring Ken Balcomb [READ STORY]

US News and World Report - 12/19/02 [READ ARTICLE]

CBC Radio - Real Audio interviews 1) Dr. Roger Gentry, acoustics program leader for the National Marine Fisheries Services (Runs 6:09) [LISTEN(ram)] 2) Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research (Runs 5:20) [LISTEN(ram)]

Los Angeles Times - Navy Use of Sonar OKd Despite Risk to Whales; Some scientists say safety features in the submarine-detection system aren't enough. [READ FULL ARTICLE]

Washington Post, 7/15/02 [READ FULL ARTICLE]
The long-awaited ruling is not expected to settle the issue. Environmental
groups have strongly opposed the low-frequency sonar plan, and Michael
Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council said his group is actively
considering a lawsuit to stop it. The NRDC's protests helped stop the
Navy's early low-frequency sonar experiments and led to the Navy's 1999
request for an exemption from the Marine Mammal Act.

Jasny yesterday criticized the agency for "permitting global use of the
system without assessing its potential to kill marine mammals and without
providing any effective way of ensuring that none are killed."

A lawsuit, however, could also result in congressional action to move ahead
anyway. The Bush administration has been exploring legislation to make sure
that environmental and animal protection rules not be allowed to supersede
military preparedness.

According to Lt. Cmdr. Pauline Storum, the Navy expects to receive its
formal permission to begin using the sonar in a month, and hopes to deploy
the system soon after. She said the Navy "remains committed to the
environmentally responsible deployment" of the sonar "to balance the
national imperatives of military readiness and environmental conservation."

Reuters, July 19 [READ FULL ARTICLE]
"We have to look very closely at the final plan. Certainly seeking relief
from the courts is something we'd consider," said Michael Jasny, senior
policy analyst with Natural Resources Defense Council.

The United States Government has authorized the Navy to use a powerful new
sonar system to detect submarines, despite concerns that it could harm
whales and dolphins.

"Today's decision is far too broad to provide any meaningful protection for
whales, dolphins and other marine life," says Michael Jasny, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The US says the intense low-frequency sonar - the Surveillance Towed Array
Sensor System (Surtass LFA) - has been extensively tested and will have
only a negligible impact on marine life.

The Boston Globe, 7/21/02 [READ FULL ARTICLE]
''The Navy has an immediate, critical need'' for the sensor system, Vice
Admiral Dennis V. McGinn, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare
requirements and programs, said before a House panel in October. ''Many
nations throughout the world can employ submarines to deny access to
forward regions or to significantly delay the execution of crucial Navy

Joel Reynolds, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council,
said that 230-decibel sounds have affected the behavior of gray whales
swimming as far as 300 nautical miles away. He said other types of whales,
including the right whale, one of the North Atlantic's most endangered
species, could be similarly affected.

''While the limit probably provides some level of protection, that's a long
way from saying the right whale is not further endangered by the deployment
of the system,'' Reynolds said. ''Not much is known about the acoustic
thresholds of right whales and how it affects them, how they communicate,
what the role of sound is in their survival.''

San Mateo County Times, 7/16/02 [READ FULL ARTICLE]
While the Navy's plan calls for sonar blasts at 215 decibels, research
conducted by the Navy has found that whales veer off their routes when they
encounter sound at 120 decibels, an exponentially lower level. The animals
can't tolerate anything above 180 decibels, whereas Navy divers can only
handle up to 145 decibels, the Navy says.

Off the West Coast, the Navy is prohibited from using the low frequency
active sonar within 12 nautical miles of all coastlines, although the sound
can enter the safety zone at levels up to 180 decibels. The sonar also
cannot be deployed in NOAA's marine sanctuaries, such as the Gulf of the

According to the Navy's proposal, its sonar ships will tow a string of 18
bathtub-size speakers, called hydrophones, that emit great bursts of sound
at 215 decibels, which critics equate to the sound of a rocket taking off.
Those intense pulses travel vast distances and bounce off vessels and other
objects, returning a signal read by a couple of hundred underwater
microphones trailing off the back of the ship.

The Navy contends the impact at 215 decibels is significantly less than
that caused by 150 seismic survey vessels that now operate globally.

The program calls for the Navy to conduct more research on the effects of
the sonar on marine mammals, including an inquiry into why the sonar has a
"long-term silencing" effect on whale calls.

NOAA officials added the agency has the right to revoke the permit if it
decides the harm to animals is more than negligible.

Michael Jasny, senior policy analysis with Natural Resources Defense
Council, said despite the safety measures, the sonar program gives too much
power and discretion to the Navy.

"We're all left in the dark about where the Navy will be operating the
system," Jasny said. "It's too geographically broad."

Straits Times Interactive [READ FULL ARTICLE]

Advances in 'stealth technology' by German, French, Sweden and Russian
manufacturers have led to submarines that can barely be heard, officials

Todd Mundt Show- An in-depth interview of one of the Harvard biologists who
was involved in the necropsies of the beached whales in the Bahamas
2000 stranding.

Action Options

(from Mark Palmer, Earth Island Institute)

Actions to support:

  1. Congress should stop the experimental LFA Sonar system. There is no good need for this damaging, whale-killing technology.
  2. Congress should not, under any circumstances, allow the military to weaken and exempt themselves from environmental laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, or the National Environmental Policy Act.
  3. Congress should require environmental reviews for other Navy active sonars that produce intense sound, such as the dangerous mid-range frequency sonars used in the Bahamas incident.
  4. Funding for the development of LFA Sonar should be directed towards improving passive sonar systems that hold much promise.
  5. We should try to get other non-traditional groups to help too (e.g. local Chambers of Commerce and Tourism Boards in coastal towns and cities, church groups, etc.).

For Further Information: Earth Island Institute, 300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133; (415) 788-3666; (415) 788-7324 (fax); .

SURTASS/LFA Sonar Background
From the EarthEar and news archives (2001 to late 2002)

Over the past several years, the Navy has been developing a new surveillance technology which promises to shine a sonic spotlight through the oceans, revealing the presence of enemy submarines, including modern "silent" subs. To accomplish this Herculean task, powerful sound waves will be created, in the same low frequency range as those used by whales for communication.

A summarized on the Navy web site: "The Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) has a string of underwater microphones, called hydrophones, towed behind a ship to pick up sounds in the ocean. SURTASS is used to listen for noises produced by submarines, so it is called a passive sonar. The Low Frequency Active (LFA) enhancement to SURTASS adds the ability to broadcast sounds, so the hydrophone array can listen for reflections of the sounds off of submarines. This technique is called active sonar, and it can detect submarines too quiet to be found with passive sonar. The SURTASS LFA sonar system uses specialized sounds and echo detection methods to maximize the range at which at which submarines can be detected and tracked."

During the 1990's, the Navy tested the system and moved toward deployment. In 1995, however, the NRDC called on the Navy to submit the program to the NEPA process; the Navy relented, and began preparing an environmental impact statement in 1996. After running short-term tests of a significantly lower power system, and observing the behavioral responses of several potentially affected species, the Navy released its final Environmental Impact Statement in January 2001, finding no significant negative impacts. The Navy received final approval for deployment from the National Marine Fisheries Service in July 2002; NRDC challenged the deployment. In October 2002, a federal judge negotiated a much more limited deployment, pending a hearing of the full case in the summer of 2003.

Independent observers, including cetacean advocates and research scientists, have disputed the Navy's claim that no significant impacts were observed. Most troublesome is mounting evidence that at least in certain conditions, and "acoustic resonance" effect can occur, whereby the sound waves of the sonar system may be intensified within whales' internal organs, leading to internal hemorrhaging In addition, the fact that the system has never been tested at sound levels planned for deployment has raised red flags. Strandings of beaked whales in Greece (1996), the Bahamas (2000), and the Canary Islands (2002) in close proximity to navy exercises, have raised serious questions; NATO studies of the Greek strandings, and US Navy studies of the Bahamas strandings both ruled out natural causes for the strandings; the Canary Island whales are still being studied, but preliminary evidence implicates some sort of acoustic impact.

Unnecessary Technology: Many observers point out that LFA Sonar simply won't work strategically to protect the Navy, as giving out such loud sounds will act as a beacon for any lurking "enemy" for targeting purposes. LFA Sonar will also reveal "friendly" Navy submarines to our opponents. In a world of cruise missiles with pinpoint accuracy and "smart" torpedoes, not to mention low-tech terrorism, LFA Sonar is an obsolete relic of the Cold War.

The Navy and DARPA have developed increasingly sophisticated "passive" sonars, which use computers and sensitive microphone arrays to pick up distant noises of ships and submarines. Passive sonars can provide for the protection and security of our Navy fleets while avoiding the serious environmental and strategic problems of LFA Sonar.

Other Web Resources on LFAS

Hear LFAS Sounds - You can hear LFAS sounds at these links:
27 second clip: [WEBSITE]
Shorter clip: [WEBSITE]
As part of a news story: [WEBSITE]

LFAS Chronology - Comprehensive overview of LFAS development, testing, approvals, strandings, and other information, including links to source material. From the Ocean Mammal Institute. [WEBSITE]

Navy EIS - official US Navy web page, including photos and sound files. [WEBSITE]
Update: Navy page including highlights of the rest of their LFAS site [WEBSITE]

Response to the Navy's EIS: Scientific Errors and Oversights - from the Ocean Mammal Institute, spring 2001. [GO THERE]

British Navy's LFA Environmental Impact Assessment - The British government is also developing a LFA sonar system, knowns as Sonar 2087. Its EIA, while recommending deployment, also addresses several concerns about the system, including its impact on beaked whales (recommending a 160dB received limit), and the potential effect on fish stocks. It also recommends against using lower power sonar to identify whales in the deployment area, citing the added noise such systems cause. [WEBSITE] [READ EXECUTIVE SUMMARY(PDF)]
Related: UK Sonar 2087 (British LFAS) sites: [MAIN SITE] [SUMMARY OF FIELD TRIALS, 2002-2005] [EFFECTS ON HEARING SITE]

NRDC Letter requesting a new supplemental EIS - Based on recent research findings, the National Resources Defense Council has submitted a request to the US Navy asking for a further supplemental EIS to be drafted, which incorporates findings since the original EIS process ended in early 2001. The letter details several important research findings, and reminds the Navy that the EIS process is required to continue to incorporate new information. [WEB PAGE]

NMFS sound research web site - Use drop down menu at top right to choose "SURTASS LFA"; includes links to press release, and sections of final rule (executive summary, history, biological opinion, public comments, etc) [GO THERE]

PDFs from NMFS:
Press Release (July 15, 2002) [DOWNLOAD PDF]
Executive Summary of Final Rule [DOWNLOAD PDF]
Text version of Executive Summary - [GO THERE]

Cetacean Community Website - Lawyer Lanny Sinkin has been a long-time presence in challenges to Navy noise; among his strategies is working to establish legal standing for other species to challenge government actions. [WEBSITE]
February 2004 - Report of hearings in Federal Court on behalf of cetacean plaintiffs [WEBSITE]

Related: Acoustic Resonance - Research in the wake of a stranding incident in the Bahamas (involving a mid-frequency, high intensity sonar system) raised quesitons about an effect known as "acoustic resonance", whereby high intensity sound waves trigger the rapid expansion of air bubbles inside whale tissues. For more information, see the following links:
Report by whale biologist Ken Balcomb, lead researcher of the Bahamas whales
Website by Lee Tepley, independent researcher, on resonance and "cavitation"
Report by Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory on Acoustic Resonance [DOWNLOAD REPORT(pdf)]

Video Report from WTVJ News in Miami - February 2002 report on the latest controversies. Go to EcoWatch section of NBC6 website, or view video. [WEBSITE] [VIEW VIDEO]

Silent Oceans - A consortium of European environmental organizations working to limit loud human sounds in the sea [WEBSITE]

Seaflow - Large focus on underwater sound impacts on cetaceans. [WEBSITE]

The Lighter Touch - Three cartoons that illuminate ocean noise issues.
Mark Fiore LFAS "Disarray" Flash animation [SEE CARTOON]
New Yorker "Ocean Bottom" cartoon [SEE CARTOON]
John Pritchet "No Effect/What?" cartoon [SEE CARTOON]

The Public Cause Sonar Site - Detailed website maintained by William Wilgus, a former US Navy Anti-Submarine Warfare specialist. Includes many images and details on sonar in general and LFAS and related systems in particular [WEBSITE]

Video Story on LFAS - Short (3 minute) video on LFAS featuring Jean-Michael Cousteau. [WEBSITE] [SEE VIDEO]

Story in The Economist - February 2002 story in print edition of The Economist, a British magazine. [READ STORY]

Acoustic Resonance Report - by Ken Balcomb, January 2001. Balcomb is a cetacean scientist who examined beaked whales presumed killed by non-LFAS sonar activities in the Bahamas in March 2000. The most disturbing aspect of this report is that the entire population of beaked whales that Balcomb had been studying has not been seen since the sonar incident. It appears that an acoustic resonance effect caused massive hemorrhaging in the whales; Balcomb contends that similar resonance effects can be considered at least possible, and in his mind likely, from the LFAS system. Despite the Bahamas incident, the Navy has not considered this an area worthy of concern. [READ REPORT]

Index of research reports, including acoustic resonance and other technical issues [GO THERE]

Cetacean Society International LFAS, Seismic Survey Summary - Detailed summary of scientific research and legal proceedings, centering on the period after summer 2002. [WEBPAGE]

Earth Island Institute LFAS Page - [GO THERE] Graphics available for download - Comparison of air and underwater noise sources [DOWNLOAD (PDF)] Fact Sheet: How Loud is LFAS? [DOWNLOAD (PDF)]

The Public Cause Sonar Site - Detailed website maintained by William Wilgus, a former US Navy Anti-Submarine Warfare specialist. Includes many images and details on sonar in general and LFAS and related systems in particular [WEBSITE]

Acoustic Resonance Report - by Ken Balcomb, January 2001. Balcomb is a cetacean scientist who examined beaked whales presumed killed by non-LFAS sonar activities in the Bahamas in March 2000. The most disturbing aspect of this report is that the entire population of beaked whales that Balcomb had been studying has not been seen since the sonar incident. It appears that an acoustic resonance effect caused massive hemorrhaging in the whales; Balcomb contends that similar resonance effects can be considered at least possible, and in his mind likely, from the LFAS system. Despite the Bahamas incident, the Navy has not considered this an area worthy of concern. [READ REPORT]

NRDC page about LFAS - including link to a page designed for easy submission of email to your Congressional representatives (remember that real letters and phone calls are often even more effective ways to voice your opinions). [WEBSITE] [ACTION ALERT PAGE]

Stop LFAS website - a vast collection of links, documentations, and rants. Sponsors an active listserve that tracks the most current worldwide information on sonic intrusions in the seas. [WEBSITE] [LISTSERV SIGN-UP]

LFAS Summary pages - by Lee Tepley, an underwater photographer with a Ph.D. in physics. Includes several detailed analyses related to LFAS effects, including acoustic resonance and sound levels. [WEBSITE]

European Coalition for Silent Oceans - Spearheaded by the Swiss marine mammal protection group ASMS. Organizing European resistance to LFAS, including working with Green Parties. [WEBSITE]

Earlier LFAS coverage - From EarthEar's LFAS section (precurser to, covering the period from March 2000 through early 2001. [GO THERE]

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