updated 7/15/2004 10:17:28 AM ET 2004-07-15T14:17:28

Environmental and animal rights groups threatened Wednesday to sue the Navy unless it takes new steps to protect whales and other species from booming waves of sonar designed to detect enemy submarines.

In a letter to Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, the groups said dozens of whales off the coast of Washington, Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands, Portugal and other locations have beached themselves during Navy maneuvers — sometimes hemorrhaging blood through their eyes and ears.

The groups recognize the Navy’s “critical importance in protecting and preserving the quality of our lives,” the letter said. “But this mission can and must be served through practices consistent with our nation’s environmental laws and, more fundamentally, with the conservation of our natural resources.”

The groups represented in the letter — the Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Futures Society, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Humane Society of the United States — called on the Navy to identify low-risk areas for training, establish safety zones around transmit vessels, and reduce the strength of the signals from what's known as mid-frequency sonar.

Study backs suspicions
Navy spokesman Lt. Mike Kafka said officials will review the letter and that the Navy remains “committed to protecting our nation and our natural resources while operating within the law.”

Sonar has been used since World War II to help identify enemy submarines and mines.

A study published in the journal Nature last year said it appeared that marine mammals could be killed or harmed by sonar. Scientists have theorized that animals get frightened by the sound and surface too quickly, causing nitrogen in the blood to transform into gas, which can block blood vessels and cause bleeding in vital organs.

Environmentalists suspect the whales — which usually inhabit only deep water — were driven ashore by the booming sounds.

Hawaii incident
The letter to the Navy followed an incident July 3 in which roughly 200 melon-headed whales herded together near the coast of Hanalei Bay in Hawaii. One beached itself and died a few days later.

The Navy had been using mid-frequency sonar in exercises 20 miles from the shore at the time. The Navy agreed to halt the testing during the July 3 herding, but said the whales began gathering a full hour before the sonar was used.

In October, a federal judge scuttled the Navy’s plans to experiment with low-frequency sonar throughout the majority of the world’s oceans, confining it to areas with few marine mammals and endangered species.

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