Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. V No. 1 January 1996


ATOC PROJECT DELAYED (TEMPORARILY) BY DEAD WHALES

by Brent Hall, CSI Board of Directors


The "Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate" (ATOC) project being conducted by Scripps Institution of Oceanography has been a matter of deep concern since it first came to public attention almost two years ago, because it involves the injection of acoustic signals into the ocean which might be sufficiently intense to injure or otherwise adversely affect marine mammals and other ocean life. After a long period of hearings, permit approvals, and contradictory claims about the purpose and value of ATOC, we have recently witnessed the operation of the ATOC source by Scripps in violation of its permits, the concurrent death of three humpback whales in the vicinity of the ATOC source, and the unwillingness of the federal and state government regulatory agencies to enforce the permits they issued to Scripps, thus allowing the ATOC project to proceed.

Questions About the Purpose of ATOC

Scripps originally claimed that the purpose of ATOC was to provide essential data on global warming. Intense sounds would be injected into the ocean off California and Hawaii; these sounds would be detected across the ocean by arrays of hydrophones; the speed of these sounds through the ocean would provide an indirect measurement of the temperature of the deep ocean. The experiment would continue for ten years or more. An upward trend in temperature over the years would provide evidence of global warming not obtainable by other means.

Because of concerns raised by marine mammalogists over the adverse effects that the ATOC sound sources might have on marine mammals, the "Marine Mammal Research Program" (MMRP) was added to ATOC, so that marine mammals could be monitored while the ATOC sources were running. However, opposition to ATOC by scientists and environmental groups continued, until on 2 June 1995 Scripps announced an agreement with six environmental groups (the Humane Society of the U.S., American Oceans Campaign, Earth Island Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, League for Coastal Protection, and the Natural Resources Defense Council) that the California portion of the ATOC project would be refocused as a two-year research program on the effects of the ATOC sound source on marine mammals.

Here is a contradiction: the environmental groups presumably agreed to ATOC because they thought that the potential data on global warming was crucial, and was worth the impact that the project might have on marine mammals. However, the global warming aspect of ATOC has been abandoned, and now its sole stated purpose is to study the effect of the sound source on marine mammals. It seems to be true, then, that the environmental groups agreed to a project whose stated purpose is simply to harass marine mammals.

On 15 June 1995, the California Coastal Commission approved a permit for the revised ATOC project. On 14 July 1995, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its approval of the project, stating that the marine mammal research should have little effect on marine life if the terms of the agreement between Scripps and the environmental groups are followed.

Since obtaining these permits, Scripps has acknowledged that ATOC was never expected to provide much, if any, information on global warming. For example, on 11 July 1995, Dr. Walter Munk, the principal investigator for ATOC at Scripps, was quoted as saying that he never claimed ATOC had anything to do with global warming or the greenhouse effect, but only with small scale ocean climate.

Seemingly oblivious to the controversy and contradictions, on 6 Oct. 1995, the National Marine Fisheries Service approved the permit application by Scripps for operation of the ATOC sound source near the island of Kauai, Hawaii. The state of Hawaii will hold a public hearing on starting the Kauai portion of the ATOC project in late January 1996.

ATOC is sponsored by the Department of Defense through its Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). This connection to the military has given rise to allegations that ATOC may actually be a cover for secret military research related to detection of or communication with submarines. We may never know if this is true, but in any case, it is not appropriate for research on the environment or on marine mammals to be funded or directed by the Department of Defense.

Three Dead Whales

On 3 November 1995, a humpback whale beached near Stinson Beach (north of San Francisco), died, and was buried without an autopsy. On 9 November 1995, two dead humpback whales were found floating near the Farallon Islands, close to the ATOC source.

The appearance of these dead whales in the vicinity of the ATOC source led to the discovery that Scripps had turned on the sound source at least twelve times between 28 October and 2 November for "engineering tests" during installation, without initiating the elaborate marine mammal research program they had agreed to. The probable time of death for all three whales includes the time period when the ATOC source was in operation.

By this action, Scripps violated the conditions of its permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Coastal Commission, and violated the terms of its settlement agreement with the six environmental organizations. According to the agreements, the ATOC transmissions were to be under the sole control of the MMRP team, and marine biologists were to be in place to monitor all transmissions.

On 15 November 1995, NMFS ordered the ATOC program delayed while the death of the whales was investigated. Although the first whale was buried without an autopsy, and the other two were lost at sea making it impossible to determine the cause of death, NMFS approved the resumption of ATOC transmissions on 30 November 1995, as the result of a conference call among members of the MMRP Advisory Board on 29 November. This decision was made and put into effect without public notification, despite the promise that no governmental action would be taken without a chance for review by environmental groups.

Meanwhile, on 17 November 1995, the law suit against ATOC by the Great Whales Foundation was dismissed. Lawyers representing ATOC told the court that ATOC had never promised any scientifically significant results about the long-term effects of man-made ocean noise on marine mammals.

On 13-15 December 1995, a meeting of the California Coastal Commission was held to hear a staff report on the ATOC project and public comments on events surrounding the three dead whales. After ATOC researchers stated that determining the cause of death of marine mammals in the ATOC project area is not part of the ATOC project, because the MMRP is only designed to study behavioral changes, the Commission voted to ask NMFS to reopen its investigation of the three humpback whale deaths.

Since the dead whales were lost, we will probably never know the cause of their deaths. It may have been a coincidence that they appeared when and where they did. It is the opinion of the Scripps researchers and of the officials at NMFS that it is very unlikely that the ATOC source could have killed the whales. They are so certain of this that they see no need for caution. However, a number of marine mammalogists disagree with this. Very little is actually known about the physiological effects of sound waves underwater - behavioral changes, deafness, or even lethal internal injuries cannot be ruled out with our present knowledge. It is essential to maintain a realistic perspective on the costs versus benefits of scientific research, and to proceed with extreme caution, erring on the side of the protection of marine mammals. Therefore, the ATOC approach of operating in secrecy, misrepresenting their intentions, jumping to conclusions before they begin, blasting marine mammals with intense sound waves and then denying responsibility when they die, is not the best way to advance the cause of science.


Refer to the next article on ATOC: Update on ATOC, in Vol. VII No. 1, January 1998

Previous article on ATOC: ATOC: The Controversy Continues, in Vol. IV No. 4, October 1995


Go to next article: CSI Annual Membership Meeting 31 January or: Table of Contents.

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