HL Deb 15 September 2004 vol 664 cc1169-71

2.51 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

What assessment the Ministry of Defence has made of the threat to whales and other cetaceans from the testing and use of low frequency active sonar.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence had conducted environmental impact assessments on marine environments in which the Royal Navy might use Sonar 2087—a low frequency active sonar system. These assessments indicated that Sonar 2087 has the potential to be harmful to marine mammals. A range of mitigation measures has been developed to minimise the impact.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for recognising the potential to damage marine mammals because of the sheer power of this new system, the number of decibels that it can produce and the distance that it can travel. But does he agree that the wider scientific community is unable to peer-review the kind of assessment that the Ministry of Defence has made because the extent and exact nature of military activity is highly restricted information? Given that this system could, indeed, destroy the cetaceans' habitat because they themselves depend on sonar for communication, this is a very serious problem.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble Baroness when she suggests that there has been unnecessary secrecy or restriction here. There is no secrecy at all over the trials that have taken place and that will take place. The MoD website provides much data on the trials and makes available the environmental reports.

In the Ministry of Defence, and I suspect elsewhere in government, I think that there has been a "sea change", if I may use that expression, in our whole attitude towards environmental considerations. I am proud to say that the Ministry of Defence takes very seriously its environmental policy, whether it relates to land, sea or air, and we certainly do so far as concerns this issue.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, I welcome the last reply given by the noble Lord, but will he state to what extent the Ministry of Defence has consulted other governments—notably that of the United States, who have already revealed substantial evidence of the very serious damage which is being done to these creatures?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as I understand it, the way in which the United States employs its sonar is very different from the way in which we do and the way in which we intend to do. Of course, we discuss all matters of this kind with the United States and we shall continue to do so.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, is it the Minister's view that the United States system is better or worse than ours?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I do not think that the Minister has a view on whether it is better or worse than ours. What the Minister does know is that the Sonar 2087, which we hope to have in operation by 2006, is an absolutely essential requirement in continuing to ensure that hostile submarines are not a danger to our Royal Navy. I am sure that the noble Earl will know that, of the 420 submarines in the world, 200 are held by non-allied countries. It needs only one rogue submarine to cause us severe damage and disruption and to put at risk our maritime supremacy.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Minister referred to efforts to mitigate and minimise the adverse effect of this procedure. Can he tell us to what extent the mitigation has succeeded?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we believe that it has succeeded, and perhaps I may give the noble Lord examples of mitigation measures. The sea area involved is monitored throughout a trial. If there are indications of the presence of marine mammals, the trial activity will be modified, delayed or moved in accordance with the recommendations in the assessment or from the on-board independent marine mammal observers, who until now have been on these trials. A second mitigation measure is that exclusion zones are operated around sensitive sites, such as breeding grounds and sanctuaries. All that should tell the noble Lord that we are taking this matter very seriously.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, are different departments which obviously have a direct effect on marine environment welfare considering a marine Act and, if not, when will they do so?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I cannot give an answer to the noble Baroness about a possible marine Act. That is not something on which I am briefed, but I shall of course write to her with an answer.

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