Navy Secretary Observes Whale-endangering Sonar

February 4th, 2008 - by admin

Navy News & Kristin Roberts / Reuters & The Associated Press – 2008-02-04 01:27:10,15240,161118,00.html

COMMENT: The nice people in the Navy have been pushing every PR button imaginable to show the world how kind their sonars are to whales, including dragging the Secretary of the Navy out to southern California with reporters. After all, who is a greater expert on whale ear pain than the Secretary of the Navy? (Operators of enemy submarines were apparently NOT invited to attend the ceremonies, but the Navy brass did throw out a great deal of technobabble, sounding like a good Tom Clancy novel.)

In any event, the Natural Resources Defense Council, California Coastal Commission, et. al. continue the good fight in the courts on behalf of the whales (and all the other marine life that would benefit from quieter sonar exercises along the coast).
— Mark J. Palmer, International Marine Mammal Project

SECNAV Views ASW Sonar Exercise
Navy News

USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, At Sea (January 30, 2008) — The Honorable Donald C. Winter, Secretary of the Navy, and several reporters visited the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group (CSG) Jan. 26 to observe how the Navy conducts Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) training using mid-frequency, active sonar while protecting marine life.

The strike group is off the coast of Southern California conducting the training under the terms of a preliminary injunction that was partially and temporarily stayed in federal district court.

Winter and the media representatives visited command and control suites on the aircraft carrier and on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Momsen (DDG 92), and flew an ASW mission with Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron (HS) 2 “Golden Falcons.”

The strike group was participating in a Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFEX) to prepare it for an overseas deployment.

“It is incredibly important for me to stay current on what is happening and see the changes that are implemented,” Winter said.

“It has helped establish a perspective for me that I can use in terms of future briefs, testimony and discussions with the press.”

Members of the press observed the Navy’s protective measures to preserve marine life while staging meaningful exercises in the area.

“I think this is a great opportunity to be able to actually demonstrate to the press something outside of the courtroom,” Winter said.

“This puts into context what it means to be able to provide proper protection for marine mammals and other elements of the environment at the same time we are conducting what really are some complex and demanding exercises.”

Before the helicopter flight with the “Golden Falcons,” Winter and the press were invited to the squadron ready room where a pre-flight brief was held, which also allowed time for the press to ask pilots and aircrew questions about marine life and ASW missions.

“Part of our mission is to report any activity, even if that may be marine life,” said Cmdr. Terence Hoeft, HS-2 executive officer.

“If we are going to use sonar, it is required that we start looking for any marine life 10 minutes prior to dipping. If we see marine life, we report it to the controlling unit and tell them the location, direction and type of marine life.”

Hoeft said the controlling unit takes that information and shares it with other ships. He assured the press in an event any kind of mammal breaches while sonar activities are going on, it is required that the helicopter crew take action to protect it.

“We have to stop if any mammal is spotted 200 meters from the sonar dome,” Hoeft said.

“At that point we will go passive on the sonar dome.”

On board Momsen, Winter and visitors were given the rare opportunity to watch the glow of consoles in the ship’s bridge, Combat Information Center, and Sonar Control suites as Sailors relayed information about a sighting and the ship reduced active sonar output to maintain a safe buffer zone.

“What we simulated today was powering down our sonar as we closed within 1,000 meters of a whale,” said Lt. Cmdr. Marc Deltete, Momsen’s operations officer.

“When that happens we power down to 6 decibels, a 75 percent reduction in strength and range.”

Deltete said ASW is a core mission that the strike group must be able to practice to do well.

“It’s a science but it’s also an art and if we don’t have an opportunity to practice it we’ll stagnate,” he said.

“At the same time, we have to strike a balance between our training and the environmental requirements of operating in this area.”

Before departing the strike group, Winter delivered a universal message for the Sailors he had met.

“Thank you for your service and I would like to thank your families for their support,” he said. “God bless you all.”

Lincoln, Momsen, HS-2 and other elements of CSG 9 are conducting JTFEX as their final exercise in preparation for an overseas deployment in March.

Navy Defends Sonar
Amid Fight over Whale Safety

Kristin Roberts / Reuters

ABOARD THE USS MOMSEN (January 28, 2008) — “Pod of whales bearing zero-zero-zero, range 2,000 meters,” a U.S. sailor shouts to his commander, warning whales have moved in front of the ship as it hunts a submarine off the California coast.

Within minutes, the whales have moved to within 200 meters (yards) of the ship, forcing its commander to turn off the active sonar being used to search for a sub that has eluded the USS Momsen and other ships for three days during a training exercise.

Below deck, the regular ping of the sub-hunting sonar — which environmental groups claim hurts and even kills whales — goes quiet and four seamen ease back in their chairs.

They’ve spent hours staring in the dark at green digital lines zigzagging down computer screens, looking for patches of more intense color that could indicate a sub.

“My concern is, I want to get away from the whale but I want to maintain contact with that submarine,” said Cmdr. Michael Sparks, commander of the destroyer.

In this case, he could not do both.

In a real-life scenario, the Navy would keep the active sonar on if it were searching for a sub, particularly the type of quiet submarine it says potential adversaries might use in shallow coastal waters. Navy officials say Iran, for example, could use these diesel-electric subs to try to disrupt oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, which handles 17 million barrels per day or two-fifths of the world’s traded oil.

But in training, worries about the impact of sonar blasts on marine mammals have led the military to impose rules that force ships to first reduce the power of their active sonar and then halt it altogether as whales approach.

Now, environmental groups and a U.S. district court judge are pressing the Navy to adopt more stringent protections to extend the whale-protection zone around ships and require commanders shut down sonar sooner.

Environmental groups have documented cases of mass whale strandings and deaths around the world that they say are associated with sonar blasts thought to disorient marine mammals and sometimes cause bleeding from the eyes and ears.

Despite this potential, although still disputed, threat to whales from military sonar, the Navy is arguing against those additional limits on its training. Officers say such curbs could leave sailors unprepared to find and defeat a submarine in battle or one lurking in shallow waters trying to block sea lanes and disrupt oil flows.

“Anti-submarine warfare is an art. It takes a lot of effort to learn how to do it,” said Capt. James Loeblein, commander of a squadron of destroyers, including the Momsen.

A U.S. court imposed stricter measures on military sonar use in training exercises in January. It required the Navy to switch off its mid-frequency active sonar if marine mammals were spotted within 2,200 yards of sonar vessels, compared with a full shut-down at 219 yards under current Navy rules.

But President George W. Bush intervened, citing the national security necessity of this month’s Navy training off the California coast, and exempted the Navy from the environmental laws at the heart of the legal challenge.

The court is still reviewing the case and Bush’s action, but the exercises went forward.

The USS Momsen, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and other ships are part of a strike group scheduled to deploy to the Gulf if they successfully complete the current training, which runs through Friday.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the lawsuit against the Navy, says the Navy can both train its sailors in sonar use and protect whales simultaneously.

“Our goal in all of these cases has been not to stop the sonar training but to ensure that the Navy does so in an environmentally responsible way,” said Joel Reynolds, director of the group’s Marine Mammal Protection Project.

“Scientists agree that these mitigation measures like shutdown zones around the sonar device and buffers around marine sanctuaries, avoidance of areas where endangered whales are known to congregate — these are measures which collectively can reduce significantly the risk of harm.”

The Navy, which will spend $18 million on marine mammal research in 2008, disagrees. It says researchers are still unable to identify the cause of whale strandings.

Active sonar emits pulses of sound that travel through the water, bounce off objects and return as an echo to an underwater receiver on a ship. The waves reflected back are converted into electric signals that, when analyzed, can tell the direction and distance of an object.

Without more definitive evidence of a link between active sonar and whale injury, additional protection measures sought by environmental groups only hurt sailors’ training, said Vice Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the Navy’s Third Fleet, responsible for Pacific operations.

“It looks to me like a feel-good mechanism rather than something that is really going to benefit the mammals,” he said aboard the USS Lincoln.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Navy Asks LA Federal Court
To Vacate Injunction on Sonar Training

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (January 30, 2008) — President Bush was within his legal rights to exempt the Navy from environmental laws to allow sonar training off the Southern California coast, the service’s lawyers argued Wednesday in court.

The exemption was issued to allow the Navy to continue using sonar during anti-submarine warfare exercises that Bush deemed necessary for national security, said Justice Department attorney Luther Hajek told U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper.

“The president’s action was a valid, legal act,” Hajek said.

The exemption two weeks ago drew criticism from environmentalists who say the sonar is harmful to whales and other marine mammals. The move came after Cooper issued a preliminary injunction requiring the Navy to create a 12-nautical-mile, no-sonar zone along the coast.

As a result of the executive exemption, Cooper temporarily lifted some restrictions on the Navy’s use of high-power sonar.

The Justice Department on Wednesday asked the judge to vacate the injunction entirely or, barring that, keep the partial stay in place.

Richard Kendall, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been fighting the Navy’s sonar training, said the president’s override of the court was unconstitutional.

“The president clearly has done the forbidden thing,” Kendall said.

Cooper did not immediately rule after the arguments.

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