National Geographic On Assignment
A defense bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush this week may have ominous echoes undersea.
The National Defense Authorization Act contains a rider that, environmentalists say, compromises the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Among other things, the MMPA regulates navy testing of explosives and sonar.
A backdrop to the bill is a continuing debate among marine scientists about the nature of the threat of military testing.
Under the new law, "the Secretary of Defense, after conferring with the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of the Interior, or both, may exempt any action or category of actions undertaken by the Department of Defense or its components from compliance with any requirements of this Act, if the Secretary determines that it is necessary for national defense."
A Pentagon spokesperson elaborates. "The exemption is a release valve for true emergencies. It's not a blank check," said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Cappy Surette. "We operate on the oceans, and we take our responsibilities with protecting both our nation and its natural resources seriously."
Yet environmentalists fear the consequences of the new law. "It's the greatest single rollback of marine mammal protection in this country in the last 30 years," said Michael Jasny, a lawyer for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, who specializes in the marine mammal program.
Navy Explosive and Sonar Testing
The MMPA, Jasny added, "used to authorize navy exercises only if a small number of animals in limited areas would be injured or killed. Now those provisions are gone."
Environmentalists focus on two military testing exercises that threaten marine animals: explosives and mid-range tactical sonar to detect mines and submarines.
U.S. Navy explosives testing has been especially controversial in the Gulf of Maine near the Brunswick Air Station, a critical habitat for the endangered right whale. "Live ammunition bombing drills run during the whales' winter migration clearly risks injuring or killing these animals," said Sharon Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Tactical sonar, used by navies worldwide, may affect creatures that navigate or communicate acoustically.
"Sonar is heavily correlated with whale strandings both in time and space. That much is clear," said Darlene Ketten, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who studies hearing in marine mammals. "Exactly how the sonar is affecting these animals is another question."
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