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US Navy Approves Use of Sonar Feared to Harm Dolphins, Whales - 2002-07-16

The U.S. Navy has won approval to use a low-frequency sonar to detect enemy submarines, but environmentalists fear the system could injure or kill whales and other marine animals.

The Navy will be required to turn off the system whenever dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and other marine life are visually detected within two kilometers of the ships. It will also be prohibited within 19 kilometers of any coastline.

Navy officials said Monday the system creates a noise roughly equivalent to a large plane taking off, and should have only a "negligible" affect on the health of marine species. But environmentalists say the low-level sound waves, which travel a distance of several hundred kilometers, could damage the hearing and health of many marine animals.

Biologists say whales, including humpbacks, are especially vulnerable to the sound waves because they communicate at the same low-frequency as the Navy sonar, and use the sound waves for feeding, mating, and migration.

Environmentalists say the Navy sonar could disrupt whales' activities and damage, or explode, their eardrums.Concern over noise pollution in the oceans heightened in 2000, when a Navy submarine detection exercise caused at least 16 whales and dolphins to beach themselves in the Bahamas. Six of the animals later died due to internal injuries from the noise.