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Noisy Navy? Sonar plan riles N.C. fishermen

The USS Nitze heads back out to sea after performing sonar demonstrations for North Carolina state environmental and fisheries officials. Chuck Beckley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fifty miles off the North Carolina coast, the view of the Atlantic Ocean from the deck of a warship stretches wide in all directions, making this block of brine where the Navy wants to practice sub-hunting appear to be no more than a small patch of anonymous sea.

But it’s a patch coveted by offshore fishermen, including those who return every summer to troll above an underwater formation called The Big Rock during one of the biggest blue marlin tournaments on the Eastern seaboard.

Many are worried construction of a practice range where sailors would learn to find and track submarines with sonar will destroy the coral bottom that attracts fish of all kinds, not just trophy marlin, and they’re concerned the sonar itself could drive away those fish that remain.

“It’s something we don’t need here,” said Morehead City fishing guide Joe Shute. “It’s going to destroy some of the best natural live bottom on the East Coast. They’re going to put it on top of live coral that holds fish and they’re going to cut trenches through it for their cables.”

The Navy is responding with an active sales pitch, learning from the fierce opposition residents of eastern North Carolina mustered to a proposed training site for jet fighters. Opponents stalled that project by persuading a federal judge to order additional environmental reviews.

The service has even taken skeptical fishermen and environmental officials to sea, giving them a tour of the proposed 660-square-mile range aboard one of its newest and fastest destroyers.

It’s one part of trying to convince a state that’s accustomed to doing what the military asks to say “yes” once more.

“North Carolina’s traditional support of the military is being undercut by economic and community concerns,” said analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “The military can’t take the backing of state residents for granted.”

Navy rationale
The Navy already has a deep-water sonar range off the Bahamas, as well as shallow-water ranges off southern California and Hawaii. But it isn’t practical to sail anti-submarine warships based at northern Atlantic ports thousands of miles to train, Thompson said. So, there’s a need for an East Coast range.

Training with active sonar — the “pings” well known to movie fans — is needed to fight the threat posed as more countries acquire quiet, diesel-electric submarines that can operate close to shore, said the Nitze’s captain, Cmdr. Mike Hegarty. Such threats are especially acute in the western Pacific and Persian Gulf, Thompson said.

“There is a growing concern that such subs could deny U.S. ships access to the region if they cannot be countered effectively during the early stages of a future war,” Thompson said.

Diesel-electric subs are quieter than the nuclear subs sailed by during the Cold War by the former Soviet Union, which the Navy tracked through deep ocean waters with passive sonar that only listened, Hegarty said. Once they get close to shore, he said, diesel-electric subs blend in with all sorts of background noise, including fresh water rivers flowing into salty estuaries and shipping traffic on the surface.

“Since the location of the threat has changed, I need a place where I can take this ship and I can train and I can get feedback on what I am doing right and doing wrong,” Hegarty said.

Fishermen want more info
But the same features that make the North Carolina coast perfect for Hegarty and the crew of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer also make it a perfect place for sportfishing, said Randall Ramsey of Beaufort, whose company builds charter fishing boats.

“One of the reasons the Navy likes it so much is there is a quick ascension from deep to shallow waters and that makes it a real good fishing area,” Ramsey said, noting that fishermen are concerned about possible effects of the active sonar on finfish.

In a business with many unknowns, including fish migration patterns that continually change, the sonar range would be another, said Terry Pratt, a commercial fisherman from Edenton.

“We’re guessing,” Pratt said of the sonar range’s potential impact. “A little more information would ease a lot of concerns. Nobody’s really sure what’s going down.”

Federal agency weighs in
Earlier this month, the National Marine Fisheries Service said the Navy’s initial environmental impact study didn’t fully consider the possible effect of the sonar range on a variety of fish species popular with both commercial and sport fishermen. The Navy said the report was expected, and plans to use it when preparing its final study to be released later this year.

There are long-standing concerns about sonar’s impact on marine mammals. In January 2005, for example, 37 whales beached and died on the Outer Banks. The Navy said a sonar exercise it was conducting was several days earlier and more than 200 miles away, and a fisheries service study released in March found no conclusive evidence that sonar caused the strandings.

But the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council said it believes the report shows sonar was a possible cause, while infection and other possible causes were ruled out, said Michael Jasny, a senior consultant with the advocacy group.

Defusing such concerns was the point of the daylong journey aboard the 509-foot Nitze, a trip one analyst said probably cost the Navy $20,000 in fuel alone. All aboard were welcomed into the normally off-limits bridge, as well as the ship’s combat information center and the sonar room.

“We are engaging more, based on lessons learned,” said Capt. James Taylor, a spokesman for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. “The more we engage, more dialogue is shared and more people understand.”

While in the sonar room, the ship’s guests heard no ear-ringing pings when the ship fired its active sonar. The sonar room of the Nitze was mostly silent, but sailors said the active sonar sometimes sounds like a low whistle. Even so, it must be used judiciously to avoid giving away the ship’s position, said Lt. Chris Ledlow, the Nitze’s sonar officer.

“You can’t just put lots and lots of power in the water,” Ledlow said. “You have to learn how to detect something that is trying to be quiet, that is inherently quieter than the environment it is in.”

Protecting that environment is the job of Bill Ross, the chief of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. While he appreciated the trip aboard the Nitze and called it useful, he remains a critic of the Navy’s initial environmental study.

“We’re still trying to get the basic information we need to make a judgment about a state position on the project,” Ross said.