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Issue # 1421      29 July 2009

Troubled Waters

High-intensity sonar on US Navy surveillance ships is endangering the marine life, violating international law and causing a public nuisance in the South China Sea.

US Navy surveillance ships have paid frequent “visits” to Chinese waters in recent years to spy on key sea channels used by Chinese Submarines. The US military claims its navy has not entered China’s territorial waters, but China’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), where the United States has navigation rights.

But the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that US Navy ships “entered Chinese EEZs without China’s permission, which is a violation of relevant international law as well as Chinese laws and regulations.”

So which international law did US Navy surveillance ships violate when they entered Chinese EEZs?

The USNS Impeccable is one of the 25 naval vessels that execute special missions assigned by the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC). MSC missions include surveying sea channels, underwater monitoring, missile tracking, sonar spying, commanding and supporting submarines and special operations.

The USNS Impeccable is equipped with the most advanced sonar system in the US Armed Forces, the surveillance towed array sensor system (SURTASS). It contains passive sonar that is towed horizontally behind the ship by a 1,800-meter-long cable, through which it can identify the type of a submarine up to 450 meters beneath the surface. The other part is a submarine detection system called Low Frequency Active (LFA) sonar, an active sonar array that hangs vertically under the ship.

The LFA sonar system uses high-intensity sound waves that can cause vibrations on the ocean surface hundreds of kilometers away, creating noise similar to a Boeing 747 engine during takeoff. That noise is the primary threat US Navy surveillance ships pose to the marine environment.

Marine animals like whales, dolphins, sea lions and certain kinds of seals use echolocation – sending out underwater sound waves with a wide range of frequencies – to navigate their surroundings. For example, a dolphin’s sonar is so sensitive that it can perceive from meters away a metal thread with a O.2-mm diameter. Many kinds of whales also use echolocation to move around and communicate. The frequency of their sonar is much lower than that of dolphins, increasing the effective distance.

Unfortunately, a report by the US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that ambient noises in the sea, including military sonar, are jeopardising the lives of whales and dolphins. These noises can influence their long-term activities, causing hearing loss and even death.

Sonar also decreases the success rate of predatory fish, like halibut, and their reproductive rate, as well as influencing the activities of giant sea turtles. Some fish suffer damage to their inner ears, which directly threatens their ability to survive.

In March 2000, a total of 16 whales of three kinds beached themselves in the Bahamas due to interference from sonar equipment on US naval vessels, and six of them died. This was not an isolated case. In September 2002, altogether 14 whales of several kinds got stuck on the beach four hours after a Spanish military exercise in the Canary Islands. In July 2004, during a Pacific Rim military exercise, 200 whales became stranded in shallow seawater off the Hawaiian coast soon after the US Navy began a sonar test.

Before the Impeccable was intercepted and driven away by Chinese fishermen and the Chinese fishery department, it had been using its sonar system. Not long after, an adult humpback whale measuring more than 10 meters became stranded on the beach in Hong Kong. It was the first time a beached whale had turned up in that area.

In the face of mounting evidence, the US Navy had to admit in an official report that its use of sonar “perhaps” led to several whale stranding cases. An environmental evaluation by the US military found that 170,000 sea mammals had been disturbed or harmed during 14 military rehearsals along the California coast.

On August 6, 2007, a US federal judge banned the use of high-intensity sonar in military exercises off the coast of California. The US Navy has also decided to stop anti-submarine training in Hawaii to prevent lawsuits.

The South China Sea is China’s only tropical sea, and it contains the most abundant and diverse marine life in China. The US Navy has sailed thousands of kilometers on “measurement missions” in other countries’ EEZs, using advanced sonar systems, and hasn’t hesitated to carry out devastating experiments. It has potentially caused great damage to marine ecosystems.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea indeed stipulates that countries have navigation rights in other countries’ EEZs. But the convention also states that a coastal country has sole ownership of the biological and non-biological resources inside its EEZs, as well as sovereign rights of exploitation, exploration, maintenance and management. A coastal country can also enact its own laws to prevent, control and reduce pollution.

These navigation rights refer to “innocent passage,” on which point the US Navy obviously cannot stand. Therefore, it is necessary and perfectly justifiable for China to dispel US Navy surveillance ships from its EEZs to protect its marine environment and resources.

Beijing Review

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