Many Paths Pavilion - Mother Earth Area

LFAS Testing; a threat to all marine life

The United States Navy wants to deploy a high-technology submarine detection system that threatens whales and other marine mammals throughout the world's oceans. The system, known as Low-Frequency Active Sonar (LFA), has been under development for the past decade in response to a new generation of "quiet" nuclear and diesel electric submarines. If deployed, it will bombard the world's oceans with extremely loud sound that scientists feel would threaten a broad range of marine mammals and other marine species, including sea turtles, fish, and even invertebrates. According to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, "If the LFA sonar system is made available for world-wide employment as proposed, all species and populations of marine mammals would be affected."

LFA is based on the fact that very low frequency sound, when loud enough, can travel great distances and detect the new generation of quiet submarines. This low-frequency technology uses intense sound, reportedly at levels in the range of 235 decibels or greater, generated by massive sound transmitters towed behind specially designed ships. Although no one can say for sure what the long-term impacts of low frequency sound will be, noise at this level would disrupt whale migrations, breeding, mating, and feeding and potentially do damage to countless other forms of aquatic life.

NRDC has experience in dealing with potentially damaging effects to marine life from loud underwater noise. Several years ago an oceanographic institute wanted to operate a low frequency underwater sound source in the heart of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Although they proposed to generate noise at a level of only 195 decibels, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that the project could "take" [read kill] almost half a million dolphins; 244,000 California sea lions; 174,000 northern elephant seals; 42,000 gray whales; almost 4,000 blue whales and 1,500 sperm whales. NRDC successfully intervened to stop this research program pending further study of the effects of low-frequency sound on marine mammals.

Sound as loud as 235 decibels is hard to imagine. The Navy's own tests have revealed that even brief exposure to sound levels as high as 160 decibels can cause long-term harm to human divers. Whales and other marine mammals are far more sensitive to sound than are humans, however, and, because the decibel scale for measuring sound is logarithmic, 235 decibels is billions of times stronger than the 120 decibel noise aversion threshold for gray whales -- the level at which gray whales have been shown to be disturbed.

LFA would put at risk the health and survival of the marine environment on a global scale, and in particular it endangers the already depleted stocks of large marine mammals since these species depend on hearing and being heard for their survival. As one noted marine biologist has succinctly put it, "A deaf whale is a dead whale."

At a briefing at the Pentagon convened by the Navy for NRDC, NRDC questioned whether the Navy had obtained the necessary permits to develop or deploy the LFA system -- a requirement because the Navy, like any government agency, is subject to a range of environmental laws applicable to marine mammals and other protected species. When it became clear that the Navy had not prepared an environmental impact statement, as required by law for activities of such potential environmental significance, the Navy agreed to NRDC's request that an EIS be prepared for the LFA program.

Scientists fear that testing and deployment of LFA may pose a significant risk to the world's ocean ecosystems. Unless and until more is known about the characteristics and uses of LFA, it will be extremely difficult to gauge the extent of harm that this technology can do to marine mammals and the ocean's environment -- already polluted by noise from supertankers, ships, dredges, oil development, geophysical research, and other man-made sources. In November 1996, once again at NRDC's request, the Navy agreed to begin releasing more information about LFA and its operation and to undertake a scientific research program.

The critical need for broader public disclosure about LFA and its potential impacts on marine mammals and other marine species worldwide is bolstered by the sheer size of the area involved -- an estimated 80 percent of the world's oceans. In essence, this is one huge environmental field experiment. According to NRDC Senior Attorney Joel Reynolds, "We simply cannot afford to play Russian Roulette with our global oceanic ecosystem."

In March 1998 the Navy began LFA testing near Hawaii. A global effort was mounted to put an end to the hideous testing.

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