The news of an alleged terrorist plot to attack Fort Dix earlier this month reminded Americans, if they had somehow forgotten, of the omnipresence of terrorism in today's world.

With that in mind, the U.S. Navy is considering expanding the use of an elite force of aquatic counter-terrorist operatives, a somewhat idea move that has drawn criticism from animal-rights activists and support from a West Chester University biology professor.

The cause for controversy is that the operatives are not humans - they're dolphins and sea lions trained as part of the Navy Marine Mammal Program to scan the waters for terrorist swimmers and mines.

Frank Fish, in addition to having the perfect surname for a marine biologist, has a Ph.D. in zoology, with the bulk of his professional studies focusing on biomechanics, the science behind the ability to swim.

"This is the best system that we have," Fish said of the Navy program. "We're still years and years away from producing an artificial mechanism that has the capabilities of these animals."

Fish appeared on the Fox News Channel in February to speak in favor of the program when plans to deploy dolphins to the Navy's Kitsap-Bangor base in Washington state were announced.

Matt Prescott, a spokesman for PETA, raised concerns about the ethics of involving animals in human conflicts and wondered whether dolphins had the attention span to handle their counter-insurgency duties.

"I don't know where this person got that," Fish said of Prescott's claims about dolphins' attention span. Fish has worked with the Navy before, including doing studies of the maneuverability of sea lions in the late 1990s at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"These animals are very trainable," said Fish, who cited the advantages dolphins and sea lions have over human divers.

Dolphins use echolocation, which works like sonar, to find objects in the water. Sea lions can't do that, but they have excellent underwater eyesight and, unlike dolphins, can function on land, making them easier to transport.

Both species have the advantage of speed, swimming in bursts more than five times faster than the best human swimmers.

The Navy, which has worked with dolphins and sea lions on a research level since the late 1950s, trains both to locate mines and terrorist divers, and to mark suspect areas with sensors they carry in their mouths.

The program has been used defensively a number of times over the years, including during the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego.

"We have certain threats in the word, and dolphins are a far better system for preventing any sort of terrorist attack than anything we have now," Fish said.

To see the clip of Frank Fish on the Fox News Channel, visit West Chester University public relations Web site, wcupa.edu/PR/, and go to the February archives.