Protecting squid before sailors

Posted: Jul 24, 2002 12:00 AM
Osama bin Laden gets help from the strangest creatures. As America's military struggles to prepare its forces for the War on Terror, radical environmentalists are using marine life -- whales, dolphins, and even squid -- to try to block sea-based training exercises and technological innovations needed to ensure combat readiness. Earlier this year, the Navy and Defense Department asked Congress to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The federal law was passed in 1972 to protect ocean life. But its poor wording and ridiculously broad standards undermine our armed forces and endanger national security. The law bars any and all "harassment" of marine mammals -- including "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance" which might have "the potential to injure" or "the potential to disturb" a marine mammal or marine mammal stock. This murky language means that the Navy can't make a single splash without worrying whether some eco-extremist group will sue them for flipping out Flipper or stressing out the seaweed. Taken literally, one Navy official points out, the law could classify the wake from a naval vessel as a harassing force if it simply caused a seal sleeping on a buoy to dive into the water. Even the former Clinton administration saw the litigious havoc the law could wreak on military operations, and along with several government agencies and the independent National Research Council, supported a statutory change requiring that the injury or disturbance to marine mammals be deemed "significant." But Congress, pressured by environmental and ocean advocacy groups, refuses to amend the language. The House is set to reauthorize the Marine Mammal Protection Act this week without the military's requested change. So under the current law -- the War on Terror be damned -- Navy exercise planners and scientists must obtain an environmental permit in advance of every mission or activity that would potentially annoy or disturb marine life. According to Navy officials, it takes at least four months, if not years, to complete the application process for a permit (effective for only one year). The process is mired by obstructionist environmental activists who champion the so-called "precautionary principle," which holds the military to the impossible standard of proving that its activities will cause absolutely no harm to the environment. The paralyzing threat to military readiness of this extremist regulatory philosophy is grave. According to Navy Admiral William J. Fallon, vice-chief of naval operations, three ships from the U.S.S. Carl Vinson battle group were deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom without crucial anti-ship cruise missile defensive training because such training would "potentially disturb" seals when target drones flew over them. Naval researchers have been blocked from improving the Navy's capability to detect enemy submarines by groups opposed to underwater sound testing and measurements. And several environmental groups have announced their intention to challenge the Bush administration's deployment of the Navy's Low Frequency Active Sonar, a key defense against stealthy, ultra-quiet diesel submarines being developed by China, Russia and Germany. Despite numerous precautions and mitigation measures being taken by the Navy, Mark Palmer of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute fretted on CNN last weekend that the system is a "sonar bomb" developed by the Navy "to attack whales and other sorts of things in the name of finding submarines, and we don't think it's appropriate. We know very little about the effects on fish, on squid, on other types of marine organisms." Foreign enemies invaded our borders and murdered over 3,000 men, women and children on Sept. 11. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women have volunteered to make sure it doesn't happen again. And all this guy can worry about is the comfort level of squid and plankton? Of course, Navy planners should be conscientious environmental stewards. They are. The branch will spend upward of $700 million next year on environmental protection alone. But the balance between environmental protection and military effectiveness is out of whack. Isn't it time to put American lives over spineless invertebrates -- human and otherwise?