|31 Dec 2003 @ 14:49, by Alana Tobin|
Protecting Whales from Dangerous Sonar
In the greatest single rollback of marine mammal protections in the last 30 years, Congress approved legislation in November 2003 that will exempt the U.S. military from core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. It will now be far easier for the U.S. military to harass and kill whales, dolphins and other marine mammals with high-intensity sonar and underwater explosives.
Protecting Whales from Dangerous Sonar
An NRDC-led legal effort forces the U.S. Navy to limit use of a "super sonar" system that can maim or kill marine mammals, but the battle over noise beneath the waves continues.
Around the globe, nations are currently testing and beginning to deploy "active sonar" technology, which uses extremely loud sound to detect submarines. But active sonar has been proven harmful to marine mammals and fish; it has been linked to a series of mass strandings and deaths of whales in recent years.
In October 2003, NRDC's decade-long campaign to expose the dangers of active sonar yielded a major victory when the U.S. Navy and an NRDC-led coalition of environmental and animal-welfare groups reached an agreement limiting the use of the SURTASS LFA system -- the biggest gun in the Navy's active-sonar arsenal. LFA (Low-frequency Active) sonar emits sounds of up to 140 decibels -- as loud as a space-shuttle launch -- that can retain that intensity underwater for up to 300 miles. Many scientists believe that blasting such deafening sound over large expanses of the ocean could harm entire populations of whales, dolphins and fish. During testing off the California coast, noise from a single LFA system was detected across the breadth of the North Pacific.
Researchers have found that many humpback whales cease singing when exposed to an LFA sonar signal that is hundreds of miles distant.
The historic agreement between the Navy and the coalition comes after NRDC proved in court that the Navy's plan to deploy LFA sonar through 75 percent of the world's oceans was illegal. The Navy has now agreed that use of LFA sonar will be guided by negotiated geographical limits and seasonal exclusions, which conservationists believe will protect critical habitat and whale migrations. None of the limits apply during war or heightened threat conditions; the pact demonstrates that current law can safeguard both the environment and national security.
But whales and other marine life are not yet safe from Department of Defense activities. In the greatest single rollback of marine mammal protections in the last 30 years, Congress approved legislation in November 2003 that will exempt the U.S. military from core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. It will now be far easier for the U.S. military to harass and kill whales, dolphins and other marine mammals with high-intensity sonar and underwater explosives. The new exemptions are unlikely to affect the court's ruling on LFA sonar because the Bush administration violated so many different laws in approving that particular system. But the Navy is considering the wider deployment of other, equally dangerous sonar systems.
The proliferation of active sonar has become a global environmental problem. Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, and the Netherlands are all developing low-frequency active sonar systems. And mid-frequency sonar, which is equally loud but doesn't travel as far underwater, is used widely by many nations. Mid-frequency sonar is in fact the killer technology associated with a number of mass strandings and deaths of whales in recent years. NRDC and its partners have embarked on an international campaign to limit the use of active sonar, and have submitted a petition to NATO calling for deployment of LFA sonar to be curtailed, for use of mid-frequency sonar to be limited, and for NATO's help in developing international agreements to regulate noise levels in the world's oceans.
Active Sonar: How It Works; How It Harms Marine Life
Of the 13 beaked whales that stranded in the Bahamas in March 2000 after exposure to active sonar, seven died, including this one.
Center for Whale Research-[link]
According to the Navy, LFA sonar functions like a floodlight, scanning the ocean at vast distances with intense sound. Each loudspeaker in the system's long array can generate 215 decibels of sound. Worse yet, not far from the array the signals begin to combine, and the result as the signals travel can be as forceful as 240 decibels transmitted at the source. (To understand just how powerful these sounds are, keep in mind that the decibel scale used for measuring noise is like the Richter scale used for measuring earthquakes: both use small differences to express increasing orders of magnitude.) One hundred miles from the system, the sound level would be from 150 to 160 decibels, still loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage in humans.
Indisputable evidence of the harm such a barrage of sound can do to marine life began to accumulate in March 2000, when members of four different species of whales and dolphins stranded themselves on beaches in the Bahamas after a U.S. Navy battle group used active sonar in the area. Despite efforts to save the whales, seven of them died. The Navy initially denied that active sonar was to blame, but its own investigation later found hemorrhaging around the dead whales' eyes and ears, indicating severe acoustic trauma. The government's study of the incident established with virtual certainty that the strandings in the Bahamas had been caused by mid-frequency active sonar used by Navy ships passing through the area. Since the incident, the area's population of beaked whales has disappeared, leading researchers to conclude that they abandoned their habitat or died at sea.
Additional strandings and deaths associated with active sonar have occurred in Madeira (2000), the Canary Islands, Greece (1996), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1998, 1999), the Canary Islands (1985, 1986, 1989, 2002), and, most recently, the Northwest coast of the United States (2003).
Perhaps the most graphic evidence of active sonar's dangers came in October 2003, when the scientific journal Nature reported that the technology's intense sound may kill certain marine mammal species by giving them decompression sickness or "the bends" -- the same illness that can kill scuba divers who surface too quickly from deep water. The international team of scientists that authored the study said compressed nitrogen apparently formed large bubbles in the tissue of whales exposed to intense active sonar, damaging their vital organs and causing internal bleeding and possibly intense pain. This study supports something many scientists have long suspected: that the whales and porpoises we've seen stranded on shore are only the visible symptom of a problem affecting entire populations of marine life.
Immersed in Sound
Whales use their exquisitely sensitive hearing like humans use their eyes -- their hearing helps them follow migratory routes, locate one another over great distances, find food, and care for their young. Noise that undermines their ability to hear can threaten their ability to function and survive. As one scientist succinctly put it: "A deaf whale is a dead whale." But what concerns marine scientists even more than short-term effects on individual animals is the potential long-term impact that the Navy's LFA system might have on the behavior and viability of entire populations of marine mammals.
Sound has been shown to divert bowhead and gray whales and other whales from their migration paths, to cause sperm and humpback whales to stop singing, and to induce a range of other effects, from distressed behavior to panic. A mass stranding of beaked whales off the west coast of Greece in 1996 was been associated with an active sonar system being tested by NATO. And the mass mortality of whales in the Bahamas only confirm the risks.
NRDC's Investigation of the U.S. Navy's Use of Active Sonar
LFA sonar was a Navy secret until 1994, when NRDC began investigating rumors that sound experiments were taking place off the California coast. Despite the Navy's stonewalling, it soon became clear that the Navy had already field-tested LFA sonar in 22 operations -- but had never studied its effects on marine life. Caught in violation of federal and state environmental law, the Defense Department agreed to conduct a full-scale study of environmental impacts and disclose how the sonar would affect marine mammals, sea turtles and other ocean species before putting the LFA system into use.
The Navy released a final Environmental Impact Statement in 2001, but it was disturbingly limited. Legally required to be a "rigorous and objective evaluation" of environmental risks, the study failed to answer the most basic questions about its controversial system: How will LFA affect the long-term health and behavior of whales, dolphins and hundreds of other species? Taking place as it does over an enormous geographic area, what effect might it have on marine populations? NRDC fought an eight-year battle to force the Navy to answer such questions, and in the end the courts agreed: The science clearly demonstrates "the possibility, indeed probability, of irreparable injury" to marine mammals should LFA sonar be deployed widely, and the reckless use of the system would violate a number of our nation's environmental laws.
NRDC's efforts to bring attention to the serious risks of active sonar are aided immensely by the tens of thousands of messages our members and other activists have sent, demanding that active sonar not be used until the long-term safety of ocean wildlife can be assured. Please continue to help us keep the pressure on the U.S. Navy to meet its environmental obligations, and begin to pressure the international community to regulate and lessen the impact of high-intensity active sonar on the world's marine life, before it's too late.
last revised 10.16.03