The Bush administration is strongly opposing international efforts to restrict the Navy's use of active sonar anywhere in the world, putting it at odds with European allies and several key ocean-protection organizations.
Although allies have become increasingly concerned about research indicating a link between the mass strandings of whales and nearby naval use of sonar, the new U.S. position, being finalized last week, puts national security first.
Seaman Adam Radford from Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet, N.C., readied a whale for removal near Nags Head. The Navy denies responsibility for the strandings but admits it was using sonar in deep waters off the coast at the time.
(Photos Petty Officer Donnie Brzuska -- U.s. Coast Guard Via AP)
"The U.S. strongly opposes any international regulatory framework addressing military use of active sonar because of the potential to restrict the ability of individual States to balance the relevant security and environmental interests," the new policy reads.
The new position is described as a "consensus" agreement among government agencies, but it touched off a contentious internal debate -- one primarily between military officials who say unrestricted sonar is needed to train sailors and protect ships, and wildlife specialists who believe the sonar may be killing whales and other marine mammals with its loud bursts of sound. An official who participated in the discussion and was told not to discuss it publicly said the debate got "very heated."
Although an initial Pentagon and Navy draft was four pages long and itemized, in sometimes harsh terms, the service's views on why international sonar regulations are dangerous, the final draft is more restrained.
But the major recommendation remains what the Navy initially proposed: that any efforts to limit the global use of sonar through international negotiations should and will be actively resisted. The military also succeeded in resisting efforts to leave the policy open for changes if evidence of harm becomes more conclusive.
Administration officials declined to comment on the sonar document. But officials at the Defense Department, the State Department, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did not dispute its contents and conclusions.
Michael Jasny, a senior consultant with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said last week that he -- and some government officials involved in the debate -- were disappointed that the Navy opposed international efforts to address and better control sonar use.
"This was an opportunity for the Navy to lead the international community in stopping this needless assault on whales and other marine life," he said. "Instead, the Navy is turning the clock backwards and is dragging the rest of the U.S. government along with it."
The Navy prides itself on being a good environmental steward of the oceans and says it is committed to conducting active sonar in a way to minimize risk to marine mammals. The service is also the world's largest funder of ocean research.
But with increasing evidence that sonar may injure some whales, dolphins and porpoises, the "consensus document" acknowledges that sonar can be harmful. "Research concerning active sonar's potential effects has demonstrated that, under certain circumstances and conditions, use of active sonar has an effect upon particular marine species," a near-final draft says.
The new policy was formulated at the request of the U.S. mission to NATO, and is expected to be made final and official soon.
European officials, and nongovernmental groups here and in Europe, have focused attention on the use of sonar by the military alliance, and have proposed some potentially significant changes.
After the International Whaling Commission and other international scientific agencies issued reports supporting the link between active sonar and whale deaths last year, the European Union began to move toward a tightening of restrictions on sonar use. In October, the European Parliament voted 441 to 15 to urge member nations to cut back on active sonar use in European waters, and to create a multinational task force to develop agreements regarding sonar and other intense ocean noise.
The issue of whether the intense sounds of active sonar can cause whales and other marine mammals to beach themselves has become increasingly contentious as more unusual strandings have been noted. Most recently, three species of whales stranded along the North Carolina coast during a two-day period in January. Navy officials say their sonar did not cause the stranding but report that sonar was used during that time in deeper waters. Three dozen whales died in the incident.
Those deaths, which are being investigated by NOAA, follow other whale strandings close to naval sonar maneuvers off Hawaii, Washington state, the Canary Islands, Greece and the Bahamas. The Navy acknowledged that its sonar caused the 2000 Bahamas stranding, but has said there were as-yet-undiscovered reasons for the others.
In response to the 2002 Canary Islands stranding, which occurred as a Spanish-led NATO maneuver was taking place, Spain stopped all sonar exercises in the area.
The Navy not only has pushed hard for unrestricted use of traditional mid-frequency active sonar, but also has spent millions of dollars on a global, low-frequency sonar detection system. Concern that sonar could harm whales initially arose in relation to deployment of the new and more powerful low-frequency sonar systems, but the Bahamas incident and others all involved mid-frequency active sonar.
Much of the ongoing debate has involved when and where the Navy can train sailors in sonar use, which officials say can be properly done only at sea. They say that a new generation of less-sophisticated but "quiet" diesel submarines pose a new threat to the country, especially in coastal waters. They also say new international agreements on sonar are not needed because domestic legislation, which applies to U.S. Navy activities overseas, already balances ocean environmental concerns with national security needs.
The Pentagon has been actively involved in efforts to change some of those laws, and in 2003, it persuaded Congress to modify the Marine Mammal Protection Act in ways that critics say reduce protection for whales.
Scientists have offered several theories about how the sonar might be harming whales. Some believe it ruptures their sensitive ears, while others say it scares them and causes ultimately fatal dashes to shore. Still others think it causes deep-diving whales in particular to swim to the surface too quickly, causing a kind of marine mammal version of the bends.