The Department of Defense announced June 30 the authorization of a six-month national defense exemption from requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) for naval activity involving mid-frequency active sonar use during major training exercises and on established ranges and operating areas.
A lawsuit filed by a group of non-governmental organizations and a private citizen to stop sonar use during U.S. Pacific Command's 'Rim of the Pacific' (RIMPAC) sea, air and land exercise led to the U.S. Navy seeking an exemption. The lawsuit was filed in spite of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issuing three documents supporting RIMPAC exercise operations while carefully protecting marine life.
Under the national defense exemption, the Navy will not be required to seek permits for activities under MMPA during a six-month period. DoD authorized this exemption after conferring with the Department of Commerce.
The exemption will allow the Navy to continue its work with NOAA regulatory agencies to further its MMPA compliance strategy. It does not affect Navy requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and all other federal environmental and natural resource protection requirements.
"The Navy will continue to employ stringent mitigation measures to protect marine mammals during all sonar activities, to include habitat controls, safety zones around ships, trained lookouts, extra precautions during chokepoint exercises, in coordination with National Marine Fisheries Service," said Rear Adm. James Symonds, director of environmental readiness.
"The Navy has a comprehensive strategy in place to comply with the MMPA. This temporary exemption period will give us the time to work with NOAA and devote our resources to the success of our long term environmental actions which form the core of our compliance strategy," said Symonds.
The Navy's long-term compliance plan will ultimately cover all Navy ranges and operating areas with environmental impact statements under NEPA, letters of authorization under the MMPA and consultation under the ESA as required. Navy policy mandates that all its ranges and operating areas be covered by overarching compliance actions by the end of fiscal year 2009.
Authority for the exemption was included by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2004.