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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Alter Navy Testing Policies

January 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Now that the Navy has acknowledged what it had previously denied - - that its underwater sonar tests were responsible for the mass stranding of 16 whales in the Bahamas in March 2000 and other mass strandings of marine mammals in recent years -- it is incumbent on the service to find a safer way to conduct the tests.

A report by a panel of civilian and military scientists places the Navy on notice that it must better balance the need to conduct such tests with the need to protect marine mammals. The report, approved by Navy Secretary Gordon England, concludes that the service should "put into place mitigation measures that will protect animals to the maximum extent practical" during peacetime training and research.

But the report contains a loophole big enough to drive an aircraft carrier through. It allows for the suspension of such protections in the interest of "national security." Unfortunately, it doesn't provide a practical definition of that term, thus inviting the kinds of abuses that historically have occurred throughout the government in the name of security. The Navy must resist the temptation to exploit the loophole.

Security is crucial, of course, especially with a war on. But just as the U.S. military has done everything in its power to prevent civilian deaths and collateral damage in the war against terrorism, so should it do what it can to safeguard fragile marine life during its testing and training exercises.

Granted, it's one thing to issue a report or accept its findings, and quite another to solve the problem. The report does not answer the key question of whether marine wildlife also might be endangered by a different kind of sonar test proposed by the Navy, one that would involve much lower-frequency sound waves. That variation is worth a try, but if it doesn't work, the Navy must diligently and in good faith seek another solution.

The situation in some ways is like what the Navy has encountered on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , where residents are trying to stop use of the island for naval bombing exercises blamed for the death of an islander in 1999. In each case, the Navy must weigh its need for testing and training, which is undeniable, against the rights and safety of people and other species.

No one can deny the Navy's work is crucial to the defense of our nation. That work must continue in any event. But every effort must be made to do it without causing undue harm.

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