Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Groups protest Navy’s use of sonar in oceans

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Members of the Animal Welfare Institute and the Citizens Opposing Active Sonar Threats staged a protest Thursday outside the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Division in Silver Spring.
Two environmentalist groups held a double feature of a ‘‘street theater spectacular” Thursday protesting the use of a military sonar system they said could harm marine mammals.

The protest performances outside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headquarters in Silver Spring came a day after the National Marine Fisheries Service, run by NOAA, authorized U.S. Navy use of a higher-level sonar system over the next five years.

Ken Hollingshead, a fisheries biologist at NOAA, said the system was important in improving the Navy’s methods of spotting enemy submarines.

Serda Ozbenian of the Alexandria, Va.-based Animal Welfare Institute, a participating group in the protest, said research has shown that the louder sonar would interfere with communication among marine mammals, especially whales, and leave some stranded.

About 15 members of the Animal Welfare Institute and the Citizens Opposing Active Sonar Threats from Maine put on the skits, in which activists dressed as marine mammals slowly died as a boom box played the hum meant to represent the sonar.

‘‘We wanted to show that we were not going to let the event by without some noise, and without memorializing it,” Ozbenian said.

But Hollingshead said a number of safety measures have already been put into place to avoid harming any marine mammals.

The U.S. Navy has maps that show protected areas heavily populated by marine mammals so ships can avoid or be more cautious in those waters. In addition, a high-frequency device with an effective rate of about 95 percent is used to detect animal activity in the water, and there are buffers in place that shut the sonar system down if a marine mammal is detected within a harmful distance.

‘‘Those authorizations do not allow for any mortality of marine mammals,” Hollingshead said.

Ozbenian said the fisheries service should do more research to show the sonar’s effects on the animals.

‘‘It’s just a shame,” she said.