NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is seeking public comment
on a request by the U.S. Navy to operate its Low Frequency Active Sonar on the world's open oceans. The Navy's Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar uses an underwater sound source to locate submarines, and the agency wants to ensure the operation of the system has a negligible impact on marine mammals.
Unique to this proposal, NOAA Fisheries and the Navy are proposing to establish "Offshore Biologically Important Areas (OBIAs)" in which the SURTASS LFA sonar ships would not operate. OBIAs are areas of the world's oceans where marine mammals congregate in high numbers to feed, migrate, breed and calve. To date, the U.S. Navy has proposed three sites as OBIAs for SURTASS LFA sonar under these regulations. The areas are: (1) the North American East Coast between 300 N and 500 N to the 200-m (656 ft) depth line; (2) the Antarctic Convergence Zone, from 200 E to 1200 E, south of 550 S, from October through March; and (3) the Costa Rica Dome, centered at 90 N and 880 W, year-round. Also, NOAA Fisheries has proposed adding Penguin Bank off the Island of Molokai, Hawaii, inside the Hawaiian Islands
Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary during the months of Nov. 1 through May 1.
NOAA Fisheries will
consider comments before making its determination on whether to grant the Navy a "small take exemption" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The exemption would be allowed if the agency determines that the SURTASS LFA sonar's effect on marine animals will be negligible. SURTASS LFA sonar affects only a small area of the ocean at any one time, only marine mammals within that area are affected.
The SURTASS LFA sonar system is a long-range, low frequency sonar that has both active and passive components. The U.S. Navy will operate a maximum of four ship-systems world-wide with a maximum of two systems at sea at any one time. The system will not be operated in coastal waters or polar seas.
The SURTASS LFA sonar system meets the Navy's need for improved detection and tracking of new-generation submarines at a longer range. This would maximize the opportunity for U.S. armed forces to safely react to, and defend against, potential submarine threats while remaining a safe distance beyond a submarine's effective weapons range.
As part of its plan to minimize effects on marine animals, the U.S. Navy has proposed visual monitoring and both passive and active (fish finding) sonar monitoring to detect marine mammals and sea turtles prior to their entering the SURTASS LFA operating area. Officials have also designed shutdown criteria to prevent the likelihood of injury.
The Federal Register notice describing NOAA Fisheries' proposed rule, frequently asked questions, and additional information are available at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/prot_res/PR2/Acoustics_Program/acoustics.html
The U.S. Navy also has a wide array of information about the SURTASS LFA sonar system, including the Environmental Impact Statement, available on the Internet at: http://eisteam.home.mindspring.com
NOAA Fisheries will be accepting comments on the proposal through May 3, 2001. Comments should be addressed to Donna Wieting, chief, Marine Mammal Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3225. A copy of the application may be obtained by contacting Ken Hollingshead at (301) 713-2322, Ext. 128.