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The C.A.S.H. Courier
ARTICLE from the Winter 2009 Issue
By Taffy Lee Williams,
In December 2008, after a decades-long battle between environmental
groups and the US Navy, the US Supreme Court ruled that the need for
training using powerful high-tech military sonar outweighed the impacts of
sonar on marine life and even environmental laws.
In the final days of the Bush administration and despite the overwhelming
evidence that sonar adversely impacts and even kills cetaceans (whales,
dolphins and porpoises) and a host of other marine species, the National
Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency in charge of enforcing the
Marine Mammal Protection Act, enacted new regulations that give wide berth
for the use of sonar.
NMFS long-standing and troubling pattern of complicity with the navy is
well known, and true to form, NMFS, recently authorized sonar use off the
coast of Southern California and Hawaii. In addition, the same broad
authority for sonar use was granted along the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf
of Mexico for the next five years. Environmental groups, such as the
National Resources Defense Council, warn that the new regulations will
expose millions of marine mammals to harm.
On February 10, 2009, a multi-national military exercise, Cobra 2009,
commenced in the waters off Southeast Asia. Ten hours later more than 200
melon-headed whales herded themselves into the shallows near the
Philippines. Three of the whales were found dead, with damage to the
eardrums. It is a scenario that has been repeated dozens of times in the
history of sonar exercises over the past four decades.
What is sonar and how does it affect marine life? An acoustic weapon with
unimaginable power, active sonar generates ongoing pulses of sound energy at
various frequencies, which are perpetuated through a body of water. Just as
dolphins use echolocation to find object such as fish or items under the
seabed, active sonar is used to locate objects, such as vessels or weapons,
enabling humans to see through the darkness of the depths.
Rescuers examine one
of several beaked whales that died during our sonar exercises off the Canary
Islands in 2002 as published in the LA Times
Technically, the louder the decibel (dB) levels, the farther the sonar
energy can travel. So powerful are these devices that a transmission in
Alaskan waters can be heard in the Indian Ocean! Decibel levels, which are
measured logarithmically, can exceed 240 dB. Typical building alarms sound
at 105 dB, loud enough to hurt the ears and cause people to flee. Death in
humans occurs at just 140 dB with exposure under one minute. Sonar’s power
is not mitigated by the liquid medium through which it travels. Sound fails
to attenuate, or lose power, in dense waters, so that the energy remains at
deadly levels for hundreds and even thousands of miles.
In a variety of ways, sonar can kill. As these powerful body-shattering
sound waves pass through living organisms swimming or floating in their
path, a resonance effect occurs, causing air cavities or carapaces, such as
the lungs, sinus, brains and hearing apparatus, to violently vibrate,
crashing against adjacent tissue and bone. Implosions of internal organs
have been confirmed during necropsies and are a signature of sonar-related
Underwater sonar can also cause the bends, nitrogen super-saturation
condition in the blood caused by a too rapid ascent to the surface, one
typical response to a sonar-struck and panicking whale.
While agreeing to a need for sonar by our highest court is nothing to
celebrate, the Supreme Court did rule that the Navy must now fully comply
with the NEPA process of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for
sonar training activities. In the past, sonar exercises took place in
secrecy; the only evidence left behind was the mass stranded carcasses of
whales and dolphins that happened to make it to shore, or the injuries to
unfortunate divers in the area. Commercial fishing operators have complained
that training areas are yielding poor catch, and protest the Navy’s presence
as heartily as environmentalists. Their fury has compelled elected officials
to complain to the Navy: “Not in my back yard!”
The Cherry Point Operating area off the coast of North Carolina is in
line to receive hundreds of hours of sonar use, with marine mammals being
impacted as many as 400,000 times each year. What are the current mitigation
measures? The Navy is required to conduct onsite scanning for marine mammals
- a ridiculous measure when you consider visibility is barely one mile on
the open water but the sonar can travel hundreds of miles without losing
power. Furthermore, visual surveys are impossible after dark or if the
vessel is submerged.
Anticipating a legal victory, in late 2008, the Navy announced plans to
expand its training range within the Washington State Olympic Coast National
Marine Sanctuary, the Quinault Underwater Training Range, from 48 square
miles to a whopping 1,854 square miles. With an expected substantial barrage
of mid-frequency sonar, exercises that destroy shorelines during mock beach
assaults, and a variety of vehicles that can churn up the seabed, severe
environmental impacts are expected. Predictably, the Navy is dismissing
protests by concerned groups who cite destruction at other training areas.
Cetaceans are imperiled by global warming, the loss of oceanic “biota”
(their food supply), pollution, bycatch, ship strikes, and even illegal
whaling. In addition, whales face non-sonar acoustic hazards in the form of
seismic exploration, oil and gas drilling and shipping. The seas are filling
with noise, confusing cetaceans who depend on acute hearing skills for
communication, feeding and navigation.
All of the great (baleen) whales are endangered or threatened, some,
along with many toothed species, critically endangered. Species, like the
white Ganges River dolphin, Southern California’s vaquita and the western
gray whale are becoming extinct before our eyes, and we seem helpless to
stop it. Local populations of many species have plummeted so that we are on
the edge of a global cetacean catastrophe.
Human technology is a preventable assault. There are alternatives to
active military sonar that will not compromise marine species, but allow us
to follow the moral route: self-preservation while causing no harm. This is
not the preferred path of the Navy.
The reality is that mitigation measures are a failure. In the Supreme
Court settlement, new marine mammal research directed by the plaintiffs will
be funded by the Navy and both sides must negotiate any future sonar
disputes. A series of EIS’s will be prepared, but this will hardly stop the
Navy from presenting it’s typical “non-detrimental finding” EIS, so
characteristic of previous sonar reports.
The Navy has long admitted that sonar harms marine life, but accepts the
mass stranding of whales, which are quantified only as the animals reach the
shores and can be counted, as collateral damage.
When a March 2000, military sonar exercise in the Bahamas caused a total
of 18 whales to strand, the Navy denied any responsibility. But acoustic
monitoring devices in the channel confirmed the fleet’s presence as the
whales stranded. In May 2003, 11 harbor porpoises beached along Haro Strait
and killer whales huddled in fear while the USS Shoup conducted
mid-frequency sonar testing in full view of nearby boaters, whale
researchers, and that famous pod of resident orca. In July 2004, 200
melon-headed whales hit shallow waters of Hanalei Bay, Hawaii, during a
sonar exercise. In January 2005, 34 whales stranded on the Outer Banks of
North Carolina during offshore sonar training.
Over the US Navy’s decades of clandestine sonar testing, how many whale
deaths escaped detection? Further, how can we calculate the occurrence of
strandings against the rate of exercises? What can we expect as sonar
exercises become “business as usual” and the navy escapes litigation? We
brace ourselves for a future that fills our oceans with military sonar.
Whales themselves can’t go to court to describe their suffering and fight
this assault of acoustic madness, but thankfully there are many willing to
make those extraordinary efforts to save whales.
For more information visit www.nrdc.org, www.csiwhalesalive.org, and
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