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News | June 27, 2006

NOAA Grants Permit for Sonar Activities for Rim of the Pacific 2006

By Navy Office of Information Navy Office of Information

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued three key documents June 27 that support the critical international naval exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) while carefully protecting marine life. These documents enable naval forces from eight nations gathering this week in Pearl Harbor to begin RIMPAC 2006. 

The exercise, including 21 days of anti-submarine warfare training, is critical to national security and preservation of unobstructed sea lanes. The NOAA documents also establish specific steps that will be taken to avoid and minimize any potential effects to marine life.

Director, U.S. Navy Environmental Programs Rear Adm. James A. Symonds noted, "The Navy and NOAA have worked hard these past several months to take the appropriate measures necessary to avoid harming marine life while also ensuring the realism of this vital multinational naval exercise."

The documents - the culmination of a 10-month effort between Navy and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, operators and researchers - are:

A "Finding of No Significant Impact" under the National Environmental Policy Act. Federal agencies conducting major federal actions must analyze the effects of their proposed actions on the environment. In this case, NOAA said RIMPAC will cause "no significant impact" to the environment.

A Marine Mammal Incidental Harassment Authorization. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Navy notified NOAA of the need for RIMPAC participants to use mid-frequency active sonar that may affect marine mammals' behavior under some circumstances. The Navy's scientific analysis of the sonar activities involved in RIMPAC show that injurious effects and mortalities of marine mammals are highly unlikely.

A "Biological Opinion" under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA concluded the Navy's use of mid-frequency active sonar is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of threatened and endangered species in areas where the exercise will take place, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

Submarines have become increasingly quiet in recent years, and today there are more than 140 diesel-electric submarines in the Pacific within reach of critical choke points and navigational sea lanes. These sophisticated submarines have the ability to pose a serious threat to national security, the safety of our armed forces, and the global economy if they go undetected.

Because of the Navy's steadfast commitment to protecting the marine environment, it routinely incorporates protective measures into training to minimize potentially adverse effects on the environment. In an ongoing effort to increase understanding of how sound travels underwater and its possible effects on marine life, the Navy continues to closely examine how its operations affect the environment.

This ongoing effort resulted in a supplement to a 2002 Programmatic Environmental Assessment on RIMPAC, a biennial series of exercises, including sonar operations, held in Hawaiian waters since 1971. A supplement was also done in 2004.

In the 2006 supplement, which was open to public comment this spring on two occasions, the Navy used the best science currently available to conservatively model potential impacts to marine mammals. No significant environmental effects have been observed over the previous 19 RIMPAC exercises. Earlier this year, NOAA said there was no conclusive tie between sonar use during RIMPAC 2004 and the congregation of melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kauai.

Sonar can affect marine mammals under some limited circumstances, but any effects are most likely to be temporary and are not likely to result in injury. Even considering incidents with only circumstantial evidence and speculations about sonar involvement, sonar-related strandings are extremely rare. The most common causes of strandings include fishery entanglements, pollution, disease, parasite infestation, ship strikes, trauma and starvation. Strandings also occur after unusual weather or oceanographic events. 

To be effective, and moreover, to survive, Sailors must be proficient at detecting and prosecuting submarines, working in concert from the air and from upon and beneath the sea.

Preventing ships, submarines and helicopters from practicing hunting submarines seriously compromises the realism of an exercise such as RIMPAC and degrades the Sailors' training. This puts them at risk.

Anti-submarine warfare is a vital joint requirement, but a uniquely Navy core war-fighting competency. It is the U.S. Pacific Fleet's top war-fighting priority.

RIMPAC provides a unique opportunity for Western Pacific and Eastern Pacific nations to train together and develop professional and personal relationships in a coalition setting using the same communications and organization they may use if required to respond to a variety of crises throughout the Pacific. Hawaii also offers superior ranges, unparalleled water space and a very popular port call. 

Pacific Rim nations need to consistently train with ultra-quiet submarines from friendly and allied navies in a variety of environments and conditions. No other exercise brings as many nations and as many ships, aircraft and people together as RIMPAC.

U.S. national strategy is founded on the advantage of forward-deployed forces, particularly maritime supremacy. This advantage permits the United States to fight and win battles thousands of miles from home shores. Enemies know this and are working to circumvent our strengths by denying U.S. forces access to regions by using ultra-quiet submarines.

The Navy is committed to the continued use of active sonar, but goes to great lengths to minimize potential effects on marine life.

Sailors are extensively trained to carefully find animals before starting an exercise by listening with passive sonar and searching with shipboard lookouts and aircraft, when available.

During exercises the Navy follows protective procedures including suspending or stopping sonar operations when there is a risk of adverse exposure for a marine mammal.

In RIMPAC 2006, for example, sonar operators will drop active sonar power by 75% of its original setting if a marine mammal is seen within 1,000 meters of the ship using sonar. Operators will drop the power more than half again if a marine mammal is detected within 500 meters, and will stop altogether if a marine mammal continues toward the ship and is within 200 meters. These same precautions will be taken at double the distance under circumstances due to water temperature conditions where soundwaves could be trapped near the surface of the water.

"Hawaiian waters offer RIMPAC participants the opportunity to realistically and effectively train in a number of maritime disciplines and exercises essential to maintaining an edge over increasingly stealthy submarines," said Rear Adm. Gary A. Engle, director of Environmental Programs, U.S. Pacific Fleet. "In addition, they will be able to train, communicate and operate together to enhance maritime security and promote stability throughout the Asia-Pacific region."