Congress set to loosen restrictions on offshore research.
Rex Dalton, Nature News Service, November 12, 2003
Scientific projects may be able to evade an environmental law designed to protect marine mammals, under legislation nearing passage in Congress.
Environmental groups have criticized the weakening of protection for whales, dolphins and sea lions. They fear the species may be damaged by the use of sonar and explosives used in offshore research1.
But some oceanographers welcome the loosening of restrictions on the sound-generating devices with which they conduct undersea geological studies.
The legislative provision to alter the 30-year-old Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was included in the Department of Defense $400-billion funding bill for 2004, approved on 7 November by the House of Representatives. The measure now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to win approval quickly to be signed into law by President George Bush.
An official at environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called the legislative change "the greatest single rollback of marine mammal protections in the last 30 years". The NRDC has previously used the act to file lawsuits restricting military sonar testing.
The NRDC and other environmentalists argue that the department is exploiting political sympathies following the terrorist attacks on the United States, and continued military campaigns overseas, to erode the legislation. "They are asking us to sacrifice our natural heritage under the guise of national security," says the NRDC's legislative director Karen Wayland.
Department of Defense officials were unavailable for comment. But in a statement, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that the move "will provide greater flexibility to train our fighting forces in a realistic manner and allow us to carefully test and deploy critical technologies".
The Department of Defense bill gives federally funded scientists and military researchers much broader latitude to conduct studies. It changes the definition of injury or harassment to species, as now provided for in the MMPA.
The bill also allows the defence secretary to exempt a military activity from the act. And it loosens the way in which provisions of the Endangered Species Act, regarding critical habitat, are applied to any military activity, research or otherwise.
"It is called a legislative fix," says John Hildebrand, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. He says that there is mounting evidence for the deleterious effects of noise-generating research on species.
Rex Dalton is the West Coast correspondent for the journal Nature.
Additional reporting by Tom Clarke
Jepson, P. D. et al. Was sonar responsible for a spate of whale deaths after an Atlantic military exercise? Nature, 425, 575 - 576, doi:10.1038/425575a (2003)