Admiral defends Navy's use of sonar, says threat to whales is unsubstantiated

In late 2005, the Natural Resources Defense Council along with several other environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Navy, claiming that its use of sonar was harming marine mammals. A recent federal court ruling ordered the Navy to restrict its use of mid-frequency sonar in order to protect marine mammals. During today's OnPoint, Rear Admiral Lawrence Rice, director of the Navy's Environmental Readiness Division explains why he believes the environmental groups' claims are unsubstantiated. He explains why the Navy needs to use sonar, citing national security as a concern if sonar use is scaled back.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Rear Admiral Lawrence Rice, director of the Navy's Environmental Readiness Program. Admiral, thanks for coming on the show.

Lawrence Rice: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Admiral, the Navy's use of sonar has been in the news recently, mainly because the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with several other environmental groups, have brought suit forward against the Navy, charging that its sonar use is causing the death of marine mammals. Let's first address the background issues here. Why does the Navy depend on sonar and what are the specific uses for this type of technology?

Lawrence Rice: Monica, that's a great question. We get asked that a lot, because if, in fact, the Navy doesn't need active sonar we can shut it off and then everyone will be happy. So if you take a look all the way back to World War II you'll notice that U.S. submarines sunk over five million tons of Japanese shipping. And to kind of put that in perspective, in today's terms, that's every cruiser, frigate, and destroyer and aircraft carrier in the United States Navy at the bottom. So submarines can wreak havoc on a nation. That's just talking about warships, not about oil tankers, commercial shipping, a huge effect. The Navy did that back in World War II with only 1.6 percent of its manpower. So, what that means is for a few bucks and a couple of people they can have a huge impact on a nation and its economy. Today it's tough to find these submarines. Back in the Cold War the submarines that we were looking for, the Russian submarines, were fairly noisy. We could just listen and we could pick them up via our microphones that were throughout the world and find them that way. Now, because of the advent of super quiet fuel cell, super quiet diesel electric technology, these quiet submarines are possessed by a number of different people. You saw what Iran did in the Persian Gulf in the Strait of Hormuz just five days ago now. They have these super quiet diesel submarines and our concern now is that the only way to find them…we used to be able to listen; now we have to go find them actively. And that's what folks are concerned about, is active sonar.

Monica Trauzzi: So, the use of sonar is directly linked to then national security?

Lawrence Rice: You bet. You can imagine the effect that one of these quiet diesel submarines would have. And remember, we call them diesel submarines, but really when they're under water they're using their electric motors, which are super quiet. You can imagine what one of these super quiet submarines could do in the Straits of Malaga, the Straits of Hormuz, if it sank, for example, an oil tanker. That now folks are afraid to ship oil through Straits of Hormuz, Straits Malaga, where a huge percentage of the world's oil flows through. So it's a big deal that we're able to find these submarines and prosecute them before they do some damage.

Monica Trauzzi: Okay, so should these national security issues take precedence over the health and safety of marine mammals?

Lawrence Rice: Oh, absolutely not! And you've heard a number of folks from both sides say that the Navy's training in active sonar and marine mammals can coexist. And what's happened, and it's ironic that we're being sued in Southern California, because over the last 40 years of sonar use there, there is zero scientific documentation that the Navy has harmed or injured any marine mammals down there.

Monica Trauzzi: And the Navy says that it spends millions of dollars each year on marine mammal research to better understand the potential effects of man-made sound on marine mammals.

Lawrence Rice: We'll actually spend about 18 million this year on marine mammals and research.

Monica Trauzzi: So, as I mentioned there is this suit against the Navy for your use of sonar. Is the Navy doing all it can to ensure that marine mammals are being protected?

Lawrence Rice: You bet. And, again, I bring up the statistic of no harm to any marine mammals in Southern California. Right now we employ 29 mitigation measures that we feel are answering that question of, hey, how are you taking care of the environment? Some people forget that the Navy not only operates on the sea, but we live on the sea. For example, I spent 10 years of my life at sea, so the ocean is kind of a second home to me. And the last thing in my mind is destroying all the animals in my second home. We're great stewards out there and take great pains, 29 of them, to watch over the resources out there.

Monica Trauzzi: So, is this suit that's being brought against the Navy baseless? Why then has the NRDC and other environmental groups come out and made these charges?

Lawrence Rice: In the past, Navy sonar has been linked to marine mammal stranding. For example, in the Bahamas in 2000, there is no doubt in anybody's mind that Navy sonar contributed to that. And I say contributed because it's important to make that distinction that the Navy doesn't turn on sonars and instantly marine mammals start dying across the world. There was a number of bathometry issues, the number of ships that were involved, the length that they were using sonar, and all those factors came together to force that specific species, beaked whales, to strand in the Bahamas. Further south from there we have a range that we run about six exercises a year on that has beaked whales on it and we did some research there this last summer. Southern California, where we run numerous exercises every year, also has beaked whales, and never have we seen a stranding down there related to Navy sonar with beaked whales. So it's a number of factors, not just the sonar.

Monica Trauzzi: So, is it accurate to say then that's there is some uncertainty as to how Navy sonar use is affecting marine mammals?

Lawrence Rice: Now, when you read some of the pieces and you wouldn't think so, because all out of people are coming out saying that the sonar, there is a direct link between sonar or the sonar causes specific physiological damage. But if you talk to the experts, they will tell you that there's a lot we don't know right now. And, again, that's why the Navy is spending so much money funding the research. And let me emphasize that this isn't research that the Navy's doing. It's research that the Navy is funding. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, University of Hawaii, UC Santa Cruz, all preeminent experts in marine mammals, are actually doing in this research. We're just paying for it so we can really find out what's happening.

Monica Trauzzi: So, the Navy has no records about sonar use contributing to the harm of marine mammals?

Lawrence Rice: Not only the Navy, but no one does. So we know that sonar has been linked to it, and we're trying to find that cause and effect so that we can eliminate it.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, so where does the case stand now, this case that NRDC has brought against the Navy?

Lawrence Rice: Oh boy, I'm not a lawyer, and I wouldn't want to talk about what's going on with that, but as you know, we had a preliminary injunction a few months back. The Ninth Circuit overturned that, gave it back to the District, and the District now has given some training restrictions, and they'll do so more lawyering from here.

Monica Trauzzi: So, essentially the Navy, at this point, is being ordered to take steps to reduce the impact of its testing on whales.

Lawrence Rice: Right. And I think everyone's seen those training restrictions in the paper. And a lot of times we'll get asked, hey, what's wrong with these training restrictions? And other sound bites that you'll see are, hey, the Navy, we think the Navy ought to train -- our opponents are telling us this, we think the Navy ought to train, we don't know why they won't comply with these commonsense mitigation measures, the restrictions that we recently had levied on us by the 9th Circuit.

Monica Trauzzi: Okay, so specifically, what steps can the Navy be taking to reduce the impact that sonar uses having?

Lawrence Rice: Well, the analogy I like to use, you have a car right? You drive?

Monica Trauzzi: I do.

Lawrence Rice: OK, did you kill anybody last year with your car?

Monica Trauzzi: Thankfully, no.

Lawrence Rice: Okay, good. And remember that the Navy has never been linked, Navy sonar has never been linked with a marine mammal injury in Southern California. So with that as the premise, this afternoon your insurance company will call you up and they're going to tell you, hey Monica, in order for you to keep driving you need to stay off the expressways and the freeways, drive less than 30 miles an hour, have two licensed drivers with you in the car at all times, and you can't drive when it's windy. And we're giving you these commonsense mitigation measures so you don't kill anybody. What would you think?

Monica Trauzzi: Well, it's a bit extreme.

Lawrence Rice: That's exactly what we think.

Monica Trauzzi: However, we do have rules for kids who are under the age of 25 because --

Lawrence Rice: Yup, that's right.

Monica Trauzzi: -- they're more likely to get into accidents.

Lawrence Rice: But that's the Navy's position, is that our 29 mitigation measures in California have resulted in zero injury. So now you're levying more training restrictions on us and our question is why? To what end? We're already at zero, you can't obviously go negative. So we're already not injuring or harming marine mammals and now what are we trying to achieve with these training restrictions?

Monica Trauzzi: OK, so scaling back the use of sonar. What would that mean in relation to our international counterparts? Would that put us at a disadvantage?

Lawrence Rice: I don't know about international counterparts, but it's certainly trying to detect these quiet submarines that puts us at a huge disadvantage. The range is that we're talking about, and you'll see this in the paper, a 6 decibel power down at a certain range, and that's one of the training restrictions that we have. And for the science experts out there, they know that decibels are not linear, it's logarithmic. So a 6 decibel power down is really a 75 percent power reduction. So it's a big reduction in the area that we can find submarines with.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. I think we'll end it right there and thanks for coming on the show.

Lawrence Rice: Thank you so much.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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