Sonar and the Environment

January 2009


Is the Navy a good steward of the environment? I don’t believe it was always the case, but during the recent court battles I requested as much documentation as I could find on the subject, and I have come to the conclusion the Navy has really changed a lot on the issue.

While I don’t agree at all with the pecking order of mammal life being more important than national security, a pecking order several environmental groups do not hide they support, I do think it has been to the benefit of both the Navy and the United States that these lawsuits have forced the Navy to take their role in relation to the environment of the Oceans more seriously.

There are two things most people don’t know about the Navy when it comes to the environment. First, did you know the Navy is the worlds leader in funding environmental research and science of the worlds oceans? It’s true, the figure for 2008 was around $26 million and that number is expected to increase as a result of some of the court settlements made in 2008.

Second, do you have any idea how much effort the Navy takes in mitigating risk to marine species during submarine training? Most people don’t, so below is the list of 29 measures the Navy implements during sonar training.


Mid-Frequency Active Sonar Mitigation Measures during Major Training Exercises or within Established DoD Maritime Ranges and Established Operating Areas

I. General Maritime Protective Measures: Personnel Training:

1. All lookouts onboard platforms involved in ASW training events will review the NMFS approved Marine Species Awareness Training (MSAT) material prior to use of mid-frequency active sonar (MFA).

2. All Commanding Officers, Executive Officers, and officers standing watch on the bridge will have reviewed the MSAT material prior to a training event employing the use of MFA.

3. Navy lookouts will undertake extensive training in order to qualify as a watchstander in accordance with the Lookout Training Handbook (NAVEDTRA 12968-B).

4. Lookout training will include on-the-job instruction under the supervision of a qualified, experienced watch stander. Following successful completion of this supervised training period, lookouts will complete the Personal Qualification Standard program, certifying that they have demonstrated the necessary skills (such as detection and reporting of partially submerged objects). This does not preclude personnel being trained as lookouts fiom being counted as those listed in previous measures so long as supervisors monitor their progress and performance.

5. Lookouts will be trained in the most effective means to ensure quick and effective communication within the command structure in order to facilitate implementation of protective measures if marine species are spotted.

II. General Maritime Protective Measures: Lookout and Watchstander Responsibilities:

6. On the bridge of surface ships, there will always be at least three people on watch whose duties include observing the water surface around the vessel.

7. In addition to the three personnel on watch noted previously, all surface ships participating in ASW exercises will, have at all times during the exercise at least two additional personnel on watch as lookouts.

8. Personnel on lookout and officers on watch on the bridge will have at least one set of binoculars available for each person to aid in the detection of marine mammals.

9. On surface vessels equipped with MFA, pedestal-mounted “Big Eye” (20×1 10) binoculars will be present and in good working order to assist in the detection of marine mammals in the vicinity of the vessel.

10. Personnel on lookout will employ visual search procedures employing a scanning methodology in accordance with the Lookout Training Handbook (NAVEDTRA 12968-B).

11. After sunset and prior to sunrise, lookouts will employ Night Lookout Techniques in accordance with the Lookout Training Handbook.

12. Personnel on lookout will be responsible for reporting all objects of anomalies sighted in the water (regardless of the distance from the vessel) to the Officer of the Deck, since any object or disturbance (e.g. trash, periscope, surface disturbance, discoloration) in the water may be indicative of a threat to the vessel and its crew or indicative of a marine species that may need to be avoided as warranted.

III. Operating Procedures

13. A Letter of Instruction, Mitigation Measures Message, or Environmental Annex to the Operational Order will be issued prior to the exercise to disseminate further the personel training requirement and general marine mammal protective measures.

14. Commanding Officers will make use of marine species detection cues and information to limit interaction with marine species to the maximum extent possible consistent with safety of the ship.

15. All personnel engaged in passive acoustic sonar operation (including aircraft, surface ships, or submarines) will monitor for marine mammal vocalizations and report the detection of any marine mammal to the appropriate watch station for dissemination and appropriate action.

16. During MFA operations, personnel will utilize all available sensor and optical systems (such as Night Vision Goggles) to aid in the detection of marine mammals.

17. Navy aircraft participating in exercises at sea will conduct and maintain, when operationally feasible and safe, surveillance for marine species of concern as long as it does not violate safety constraints or interfere with the accomplishment of primary operational duties.

18. Aircraft with deployed sonobouys will use only the passive capability of sonobouys when marine mammals are detected within 200 yards of the sonobouy.

19. Marine mammal detections will be immediately reported to the assigned Aircraft Control Unit for further dissemination to ships in the vicinity of the marine species as appropriate when it is reasonable to conclude that the course of the ship will likely result in a closing of the distance to the detected marine mammal.

20. Safety Zones – When marine mammals are detected by any means (aircraft, shipboard lookout, or acoustically) within 1,000 yards of the sonar dome (the bow), the ship or submarine will limit active transmission levels to at least 6 dB below normal operating levels.

(i) Ships and submarines will continue to limit maximum transmission levels by this 6 dB factor until the animal has been seen to leave the area, has not been detected for 30 minutes, or the vessel has transited more than 2,000 yards beyond the location of the last detection.

(ii) Should a marine mammal be detected within or closing to inside 500 yards of the sonar dome, active sonar transmissions will be limited to at least 10 dB below the equipment’s normal operating level. Ships and submarines will continue to limit the maximum ping levels by this 10 dB factor until the animal has been seen to leave the area, has not been detected for 30 minutes, or the vessel has transited more than 2,000 yards beyond the location of the last detection.

(iii) Should the marine mammal be detected within or closing to inside 200 yards of the sonar dome, active sonar transmissions will cease. Sonar will not resume until the animal has been seen to leave the area, has not been detected for 30 minutes, or the vessel has transited more than 2,000 yards beyond the location of the last detection.

(iv) Special conditions applicable for dolphins and porpoises only: If, after conducting an initial maneuver to avoid close quarters with dolphins or porpoises, the Officer of the Deck concludes that dolphins or porpoises are deliberately closing to ride the vessel’s bow wave, no further mitigation actions are necessary while the dolphins or porpoises continue to exhibit bow wave riding behavior.

(v) If the need for power-down should arise as detailed in “Safety Zones” above, the ship or submarine shall follow the requirements as though they were operating at 235 dB – the normal operating level (i.e., the first power-down will be to 229 dB, regardless of at what level above 235 sonar was being operated).

21. Prior to start-up or restart of active sonar, operators will check that the Safety Zone radius around the sound source is clear of marine mammals.

22. Sonar levels (generally) – The ship or submarine will operate sonar at the lowest practicable level, not to exceed 235 dB, except as required to meet tactical training objectives.

23. Helicopters shall observe the vicinity of an ASW exercise for 10 minutes before the first deployment of active (dipping) sonar in the water.

24. Helicopters shall not dip their sonar within 200 yards of a marine mammal and shall cease pinging if a marine mammal closes within 200 yards after pinging has begun.

25. Submarine sonar operators will review detection indicators of close-aboard marine mammals prior to the commencement of ASW operations involving active mid-frequency sonar.

26. Increased vigilance during major ASW training exercises with tactical active sonar when critical conditions are present:

Based on lessons learned from strandings in the Bahamas (2000), the Madeiras(2000), the Canaries (2002) and Spain (2006), beached whales are of particular concern since they have been associated with MFA operations. Navy should avoid planning major ASW training exercises with MFA in areas where they will encounter conditions that, in their aggregate, may contribute to a marine mammal stranding event.

The conditions to be considered during exercise planning include:

  1. Areas of at least 1,000 m depth near a shoreline where there is a rapid change in bathmetry on the order of 1,000-6,000 meters occurring across a relatively short horizontal distance (e.g., 5 nm).
  2. Cases for which multiple submarines [2 3)-operating MFA in the same area over extended periods of time [> 6 hours) in close proximity (I 10 nm apart).
  3. An area surrounded by land masses, surrounded by less than 35 nm and at least 10 nm in length or an embayment, wherein operations involving multiple ships/subs (> or = 3) employing MFA near land may produce sound directed toward the channel or embayment that may cut off the lines of egress for marine mammals.
  4. Although not as dominant a condition as bathyrnetric features, the historical presence of a simificant surface duct (i.e., a mixed layer of constant water temperature extending fiom the sea surface to 100 or more feet).

If the major exercise must occur in an area where the above conditions exist in their aggregate, these conditions must be fully analyzed in environmental planning documentation. Navy will increase vigilance by undertaking the following additional protective measure:

A dedicated aircraft (Navy asset or contracted aircraft) will undertake reconnaissance of the embayment or channel ahead of the exercise participants to detect marine mammals that may be in the area exposed to active sonar. Where practical, advance survey should occur within about two hours prior to MFA use, and periodic surveillance should continue for the duration of the exercise. Any unusual conditions (e.g., presence of sensitive species, groups of species milling out of habitat, any stranded animals) shall be reported to the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC), who should give consideration to delaying, suspending or altering the exercise.

All Safety Zone requirements described in Measure 20 apply.

The post-exercise report must include specific reference to any event conducted in areas where the above conditions exist, with exact location and timelduration of the event, and noting results of surveys conducted.

IV. Coordination and Reporting

27. Navy will coordinate with the local NMFS Stranding Coordinator regarding any unusual marine mammal behavior and any stranding, beached liveldead, or floating marine mammals that may occur at any time during or within 24 hours after completion of mid-frequency active sonar use associated with ASW training activities.

28. Navy will submit a report to the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, within 120 days of the completion of a Major Exercise. This report must contain a discussion of the nature of the effects, if observed, based on both modeled results of real-time events and sightings of marine mammals.

29. If a stranding occurs during an ASW exercise, NMFS and Navy will coordinate to determine if MFA should be temporarily discontinued while the facts surrounding the stranding are collected.

The list of mitigiating actions the Navy takes is so long, it is unreasonable for the media to include them in an article regarding the environment and Navy sonar. It is also noteworthy the list has never, ever been printed by someone in the media, not once. When I asked for the list, the folks at CHINFO seemed puzzled that anyone would care.

In many ways they are right, nobody does care, but I think it should be noted that we are barely halfway through the first month of 2009 and already another Pacific power has contracted for half a dozen more submarines. So while I am proud of the Navy for their commitment to the environment, I’d be more impressed if there was consistent evidence of a commitment to sonar training in the Pacific in 2009. Lawsuits impacted training cycles in 2008, and this is one skill (some consider ASW an art) there can never be enough training focus dedicated to in my opinion.

Posted by galrahn in Navy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • dave

    My fear is that there is no appeasing the radical eco crowd. Give them an inch and they’ll take a yard. Environmentalism long ago descended into a nutty religion (I think people enjoy believing crazy apocalyptic visions of eco-doom). Maybe if the Navy just starts labeling their subs “organic” the eco-nuts will leave them alone.

  • Rubber Ducky

    As with Vieques, the Navy ended up in the right place on this issue, but only after putting itself in the worst possible light.

    You’d think that with all the PAOs in the Navy, at least one would: a). have the boss’s ear, and b). have a clue.

    Perhaps our collective tone-deafness to public issues comes from our deeply held and deeply wrong-headed notion that somehow we in the Navy own the Navy. Folks, we are employees. The citizens of the United States are the shareholders. Congress is our Board of Directors. Someday we should get this right.

  • Byron

    Ducky, is there any part of this Navy you don’t hate, especially having served in it for +30 years?

  • Jay


    What about Rubber Ducky’s comment do you find incorrect?

    (I say this because you jump to the “hate” bs…trying to put him on the defensive…when he has no reason to be there.

    Some more thought, pls. Like you sometimes provide on other blogs. Add to the conversation & provide ideas.

  • Byron

    Perhaps “hate” was the wrong word. It seems as though Ducky can find no good in what our Navy does today. I believe there are many things we do well, not perfectly, but a lot better than average. The Navy is beset by many social and economic issues not within it’s control, just like it’s done through the past two centuries, and it still is the most powerful navy in the world. Yet everything Ducky says here somehow finds fault with the Navy. Is the Navy all it should be? No, and that’s why forums such as this exist. Is it better than fair? You bet!

  • Andy (JADAA)

    “When I asked for the list, the folks at CHINFO seemed puzzled that anyone would care.”

    Therein, I would respectfully submit, may lie half of the problem. While this is a sidebar to your overall point about the fact that as a seagoing profession we are by our very nature more in tune with the realities of the oceanic environment and its nature than those who are far more adept in external communications would have the general population believe, it is nonetheless one that bears addressing.

    Once upon a time, at the beginning of career 1.0, I was a full time PAO and headed for the designator. What I quickly learned was that while there are some really terrific individuals within the CHINFO system, the basic fact is that “information” is NOT actually any part of what it considers to be it’s tasking and missionIMHO. As late as this decade I find the “we’re a PR business, not a news dissemination organization” mentality to be in full bloom. New methods, same old same old. When they go out of their way to block embarked aviation reporters, some of whom are among the most respected in the world, from even doing a 24-36 hour visit to a CV, then you know they put the “dys” into dysfunctional. So don’t despair that you got the equivalent to the “deer in the headlights look” when you asked, it’s their nature, they can’t help it.


  • Rubber Ducky

    Byron: perhaps with my time in the Nav has come also a sense of ownership. For those of a politically conservative and authoritarian bent (you know who you are…), criticism of the official line may seem hateful and disloyal. For those of us who for years have been battling within the system its less-than-flawless aspects and trying to move the Navy forward, overweening ‘loyalty’ gets in the way of true loyalty.

    USN has a cadre of PAO professionals and over time a history of great CHINFOs. So when the Nav’s leadership, unimpeded by the PAOs, screws the pooch (as I have said – in print – under my name – on the pages of Proceedings – it did in the case of the first GREENEVILLE incident and again ICO Vieques), it seemed incongruous and harmful and I took the time to speak out.

    Well, the Nav has mangled this sonar/whales thing also. The original blog posting is a good story and should have gone out at the start of this whole flap, not at the very end. If CHINFO were alive today, I’m sure it would have been handled better.

    The broader picture is that the US Naval Institute which hosts this blog has a tradition going back to 1873 of speaking truth to power within the Navy. This is a forum, not an amen chorus. As the British political scientist Susan George said it: “If we make no enemies, we should question the worth of our work.”

  • Byron

    Ducky, I only wonder why you have nothing positive to say about the Navy.

  • Rubber Ducky

    ‘Ducky, I only wonder why you have nothing positive to say about the Navy.’

    In the first sentence of my first posting on this topic: “…the Navy ended up in the right place on this issue.”

  • claudio

    This is one of the times when I have to agree with the point that Ducky makes. We do a lot of good things in the Navy, but somehow fail at making that public. And it’s an ailment we have suffered from for quite a while.

    Over 10 years ago, while serving with the HSL squadrons in Mayport, there was a whole reporting system for Right Whale sightings and searches off the coast. (I never did figure out what happened to the Left Whales!!) This was especially critical in the Winter when they tended to come south along with the other snow birds. It was a big deal. Would have been nice to take a local News personality on a flight to show how much the Navy does to prevent injuries and damage to the nautical fauna. Really no cost to the Navy for this. Alas, other than me and prob some of the pilots and AWs that were doing the searches, not many others aware of that or the preventive items delineated above.

    Not sure why our publicity/PAO programs are so lame. Maybe because we’re too reactionary vs proactive, don’t lean forward enough. Especially in this “environmentally sensible” environment.

    definitely lots of room for improvement.