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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 177

Senator Allison asked the Minister for Defence, upon notice, on 16 November 2004:

(1)   Is the Minister aware of the resolution of the Parliament of the European Union (EU) dated 28 October 2004 which calls on its 25 member states to stop the deployment of high intensity active naval sonar until more is known about the harm it inflicts on whales and other marine life.

(2)   Is the Minister aware of the report of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which found compelling evidence that entire populations of whales and other marine mammals are potentially threatened by increasingly intense man-made underwater noise, both regionally and ocean-wide.

(3)   Is the Minister aware that the IWC expressed particular concern about the effects of high intensity sonar, noting that the association with certain mass strandings ‘is very convincing and appears overwhelming’.

(4)   Will the Government consider joining the EU in supporting the establishment of a multinational task force to develop an international agreement on sonar and other sources of intense ocean noise in order to exclude and seek alternatives to the harmful sonars used and to immediately restrict the use of high intensity active naval sonars in waters falling under their jurisdiction; if not, why not.

(5)   Will the Minister provide details of: (a) the sonar systems used in Australian waters; and (b) the proposals to use active sonar during the proposed joint military training exercises between Australia and the United States of America (US) in Shoalwater Bay and surrounding waters.

(6)   Will the environmental management plans for these joint military training exercises be made public and will the precautionary principle be adopted in all circumstances.

(7)   Will the Minister provide details of proposals to adopt the new Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active system, currently in use on two US Navy ships, for Australian warships and submarines.

(8)   What efforts have been made by the Government to improve knowledge about the distribution of whales in Australian waters and the effects of active sonar systems on marine life.

(9)   Will the environmental impact of the use of active sonar systems in joint military exercises and more generally be overseen and assessed by marine scientists independent of government; if so, by whom; if not, why not.

Senator Hill (Minister for Defence) —The answer to the honourable senator’s question is as follows:

(1)   Yes.

(2)   Yes.

(3)   Yes. The United States Navy admits that there is a spatial and temporal correlation between some mass stranding events and its operation of certain types of sonar equipment in particular circumstances. There appears to be no instance in Australia of a whale stranding event occurring in association with the conduct of Defence activities using sonar.

(4)   No. The sonars used by Defence are operated in a way that ensures that there is minimal risk to marine mammals. The strategies in place for the operation of sonar equipment are among the most precautionary in the world.

(5) (a)   Yes. There are hundreds of types of sonar devices used by civilians, industry and the military, ranging from depth sounders and fish finders to military systems used in anti-submarine warfare. With regard to the military applications of sonar technology used in military exercises, some information was made available to the public on 12 October 2004 in supporting information produced for the environmental impact assessment process currently underway for the United States - Australian Exercise Talisman Saber 05. Further information will also be provided early in 2005 as part of the public consultation process being undertaken for this exercise under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). (b) Yes. See answer to (a). Vessel mounted active anti-submarine warfare sonar is not used in Shoalwater Bay nor in the immediate vicinity. Anti-submarine warfare exercises will be conducted far offshore in the Coral Sea.

(6)   Yes.

(7)   There are no proposals to adopt Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar for Australian warships or submarines.

(8)   The Australian Government, through the Natural Heritage Trust, has funded whale research of over three million dollars determining the distribution and abundance of the listed threatened species of blue, southern right and humpback whales. In addition, Defence has contributed funding over several years toward research into the distribution and abundance of blue whales and the effects of noise on humpback whales. It has also supported university studies of the effects of noise on whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. The Australian Government is aware of the concerns regarding the effect of sound on marine mammals and is monitoring research efforts particularly in Europe and North America to ensure we are abreast of the latest information. Defence has also conducted an environmental impact assessment of the use of all acoustic sources used by Defence in the marine environment.

(9)   Yes, and this has already been done. The strategies dealing with acoustic sources of sound in the ocean, developed as part of an environmental impact management plan for Defence activities in the marine environment, were provided to the Department of Environment and Heritage, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Dr Rob McCauley of Curtin University in Western Australia, who is a world renowned expert in this field, for comment prior to being implemented by Defence.