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US Navy Continues Campaign to Calm Sonar Fears, Resist New Restrictions; Scientists Question Navy’s “Absolute” Threshold of Proof of Harm

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The US Navy continued its increasingly adamant defense of its mid-frequency sonar training program this week, with the US Pacific Fleet Commander telling reporters that court-ordered restrictions are making it more difficult to train. Admiral Robert Willard said that one of his strike groups showed “adequate, although degraded” anti-submarine warfare proficiency during recent exercises off California. The fleet certified the group anyway, but noted the ships altered standard techniques and procedures to comply with court rulings. Willard said sailors were learning artificial tactics they wouldn’t use in the real world. “Translate that into the Western Pacific or into the Middle East, where quiet diesel-powered submarines exist in large numbers, and we’re potentially in trouble,” Willard said. Meanwhile, during a field trip to a Navy destroyer off the coast of Virginia, Jene Nissen, the Navy’s environmental acoustics manager, said the Navy was working hard to align their practices with what scientists say is necessary, stressing the lack of any strandings “linked scientifically” to Navy activities during 40 years of presence on the east coast. Some of the scientists on board as experts for the press questioned the Navy’s absolute assurance, noting several incidents in which mid-frequency sonar is suspected of causing strandings or agitated reaction among whales, though absolute proof was not found. Nina Young of the Ocean Leadership Consortium (a program that coordinates several agency ocean programs) said the Navy uses uncertain cause of death rulings to downplay possible links between sonar and mammals. “It’s unfortunate that the threshold for the Navy seems so absolute, and the burden of proof so high, that it undermines efforts to engage in a productive discussion, she said. Andrew Wright, a marine mammal scientist who has worked for the Marine Mammal Commission and NOAA, said definitive proof of sonar’s effect on whales didn’t exist until recently. “We’ve only really known about the problem since 2000, 2002. We don’t have long-term information, even on humans,” Wright said later. “There’s so much uncertainty around this, and it all depends on where you place the burden of proof.” Sources: The Virginian-Pilot, 6/16/08 [READ ARTICLE]  San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/10/08 [READ ARTICLE]

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