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Final Rule Governs Unintentional Impacts to Marine Mammals from U.S. Navy Sonar

NOAA Fisheries Service is issuing regulations to govern the unintentional taking of marine mammals incidental to U.S. Navy operation of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active (SURTASS LFA) sonar system. The Secretary of Commerce has determined that these takes will have a negligible impact on the affected species or stocks of marine mammals and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on their availability for taking for subsistence uses. "Negligible impact'' is an impact resulting from the specified activity that cannot be reasonably expected to, and is not reasonably likely to, adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival. ) These regulations set forth the permissible methods of take and other means of effecting the least practicable adverse impact on marine mammals and their habitat.

On May 12, 2006, NOAA Fisheries Service received an application from the U.S. Navy requesting an authorization for the taking of marine mammals incidental to deploying the SURTASS LFA sonar system for military readiness activities. These activities include training, testing and routine military operations for a period of time not to exceed 5 years. According to the Navy's application, the SURTASS LFA sonar system would operate on a maximum of 4 ships in areas potentially including the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. On September 28, 2006, NOAA published a notice of receipt of the U.S. Navy application and invited the public to submit comments on the application. These comments were considered in the development of the final rule.

SURTASS LFA sonar provides the Navy with a reliable and dependable system for long-range detection of quieter, harder-to-find submarines. Low-frequency sound travels in seawater for greater distances than higher frequency sound used by most other active sonars. According to the Navy, the SURTASS LFA sonar system would meet the need for improved detection and tracking of new-generation submarines at a longer range. This would maximize the opportunity for U.S. armed forces to safely react to, and defend against, potential submarine threats while remaining a safe distance beyond a submarine's effective weapons range.

This final rule is effective through August 15, 2012. However, these regulations do not themselves authorize the taking of marine mammals. NOAA Fisheries Service authorizes the incidental take through "letters of authorization”. Prior to issuance of a letter of authorization, NOAA conducts a review of the activity and its impact on marine mammals (through the required monitoring, reporting and research).

A copy of the Navy's Final Environmental Impact Statement can be downloaded at: http://www.surtass-lfa-eis.com. Additional background information is available online.

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