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Coastal Commission challenges Navy, urges halt to sonar, other man-made underwater noises

The California Coastal Commission has waded into a controversy that has
enveloped Gov. Schwarzenegger, the U.S. military and some of the nation’s
top marine scientists.

Ignoring objections from the U.S. Navy and the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography at UC San Diego, the Coastal Commission voted unanimously to
recommend limits on the use of sonar off the California coast.

Any decisions limiting the use of sonar would ultimately have to be made by
Congress.

Last year, Schwarzenegger said sonar and other manmade sounds could be
harmful to marine life, and more research should be done to look into it
when he layed out his Oceans Protection Plan.

A spokesperson for Gov. Schwarzenegger said that the administration had no
official position on the Coastal Commission action, though his appointees to
the commission voted in favor of the new restrictions.

Resources Agency spokesman Sandy Cooney said that the Navy, Scripps and the
Coastal Commission are more in agreement on the issue than it might seem.
“It’s clear to everyone involved that more research is necessary to
determine the acoustic impacts on marine mammals. We’re happy to see that
the Coastal Commission has agreed with us that an emphasis on scientific
research is important,” he said.

The Navy is drafting its own document on the effects of sound on marine
mammals and Scripps is writing one with other science groups. The Navy and
Scripps urged the commission to delay voting on its document until its
members had read the other reports.

The Navy has criticized the Commission report, and has argued there is no
absolute proof that manmade sound has a direct effect on marine mammals. And
they say they are already taking steps to limit the effect they have on
marine life.

“The bottom line is there are numerous and dozens of sounds that can affect
marine mammals and sonar is just one of them,” said Navy Lt. William Marks.
“To protect the Navy and all of our national interests, we have to train
with sonar. We have developed strategies to limit the effects on marine
mammals.”

The Coastal Commission action is a direct attack on a recent report by the
National Academy of Sciences that states no scientific study has proven a
link between sound exposure and harm to marine mammals. Commission Executive
Director Peter Douglas said the claims made by the Navy and the federal
government that the science is inconclusive are beside the point.

“Some people demand a level of [scientific] certainty that is impossible to
achieve,” said Douglas, who compared the situation to the debate over global
warming. “Part of the hallmark of this commission is to base many of its
decisions on the best judgment you can make, based on the best information
you have available.”

The potential harmful effects of sonar on marine mammals is quickly becoming
a hot environmental issue. Two years ago, the Natural Resources Defense
Council sued the Navy over the use of low-frequency sonar. The Navy settled
the suit and agreed to limit its use to one area in the Northwestern Pacific
Ocean.

Last month, the NRDC filed another lawsuit in the federal court in Los
Angeles against the Navy’s use of mid- frequency sonar, the principal system
used aboard U.S. naval vessels to locate submarines and underwater objects.
The NRDC claims the Navy is responsible for the death of 37 whales along the
outer banks of North Carolina.

The Navy said it is not the cause of the North Carolina deaths and has only
taken responsibility for the death of eight whales in 2000 during a sonar
test near the Bahamas, in which more than one vessel was used and the
animals were unable to flee.

The Commission’s report will be sent to the federal Marine Mammal
Commission, which was instructed by Congress to investigate the possible
threat man-made sounds have on sea life. The 28-member commission, composed
of scientists, government agencies and buisiness leaders, has been meeting
since 2003, but has been marked by infighting and constant disagreements.
The disagreements became so acrimonious that members of the committee have
insisted on drafting their own findings and recommendations.

In February, the Marine Mammal Commission will send its report to Congress
along with those it receives from the committee members. The Marine Mammal
Commission’s report is still in draft form and not available for public
view.


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