Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VII No. 3 July 1998

Update on the LFA and Other Ocean Noise

by William Rossiter, CSI President

While concern from environmental groups, politicians, and the public over human noise in the oceans gets stronger, several June meetings suggest that the issues are receiving official attention. The SURTASS Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFA), the new U.S. Navy sonar system reported in previous issues of Whales Alive!, was the focus of a June 30th "public outreach" meeting in Washington. CSI President Bill Rossiter attended to continue CSI's scrutiny of the LFA and its Environmental Impact Statement, which was discussed in detail. The Navy again was forthright in their information, and has established a web site at: <http://eisteam.home.mindspring.com> to make favorable information available to the public. While confirming that the first of a new class of multipurpose vessels designed to carry the LFA, the "Impeccable", was under construction, no more LFA tests are planned until EIS is approved. The Draft EIS may be available in February of 1999 and CSI will encourage members to review and comment on it, as we will. If the EIS demonstrates that the LFA will have no significant environmental impact, and survives anticipated litigation, it will allow the Navy to scour the world's oceans with perhaps the most powerful controlled sounds humans have ever made. CSI's focus has been on the mitigation procedures to prevent the LFA from doing harm. We are convinced that the Navy is committed to using the LFA carefully in peacetime operations. However, this EIS affects more than the LFA. It may also establish the next decade's management and regulatory standards to deal with human noise in the oceans. The fundamental need, and purpose, of the EIS and the associated Scientific Research Program (SRP) is information.

Drs. Chris Clark and Peter Tyack presented initial results at this meeting from their LFA SRP, designed to assess the characteristics of human sound in the ocean that might produce a "significant impact" on whales. Their preliminary data suggest that any observed impacts were not biologically significant, and while their analysis was incomplete, they expressed relief that their initial concerns seemed alleviated. Dr. Roger Payne argued further that preconceptions about human acoustical impacts might be excessive. In his view we must be willing to accept that perhaps whales are capable of dealing with human noise, whether from shipping, seismic surveys, or the LFA. The ocean was a noisy place long before humans added to the din. In this context the LFA is just one more possible irritant, but not a serious threat to the survival of populations. Although CSI would be eager to find that this is true, as it would remove at least one of many environmental concerns, we share our skepticism with most of the environmental community and many scientists. Recent history offers compelling examples of environmental degradation that were not obvious until the damage was well underway. Decades of experience demand that we act under the "precautionary principle", and approach potential impacts with the surety that we are ignorant about our cumulative impacts even as we increase them. All we really know is that we are getting louder. So many other problems could have been lessened or prevented with just a little caution; we must not allow the LFA to lead us into a noisier era.

The initial SRP data demonstrated that some blue and fin whales' vocalizations stopped when the LFA transmitted. These species are often in groups defined by their acoustical contacts; what do we do by silencing them? Migrating gray whales are forced to travel thousands of miles between where they can find enough food and where they must have their babies, locked into a narrow corridor defined by rocks and waves inside and sharks and orcas outside. They deflected their travel based on the strength of the LFA signal in spite of this powerful biological imperative. In Hawaii anecdotal information suggested that humpbacks and other marine life moved in large scale responses to LFA signals. The scientific surveys to demonstrate distribution before, during, and after the LFA had not been thought necessary, and although Tyack and Clark wanted to assess the anecdotal reports, an opposition legal maneuver prevented that, much to our frustration. We are left with doubts. Is this the time to decide that whales can deal with our din?

A 1996 mass stranding of beaked whales in the Mediterranean coincided with transmissions from an experimental NATO sonar system operated by SACLANT, a military research consortium. Formal but restricted meetings to assess this event and potential impacts from such systems were held in Italy in mid-June. Consider the political impetus needed to cause all NATO countries to agree to consider impacts on marine life from loud, low frequency sonars despite strong concerns about compromising classified systems! The LFA is just one of several systems appearing worldwide, each with different characteristics.

A conference on the effects of seismic surveys on marine mammals was held in London a week later. At the latter Bill Rossiter met with several very concerned scientists, all expert in both cetaceans and sound. An increasing number of experts are recognizing that they must speak out soon, in spite of their professional reticence about becoming involved with issues. The general silence from many in the U.S. is seen internationally as an indication that funding from the Office of Naval Research is an effective suppressant, but that demeans their professionalism in our view. In any case the pressure to speak before it's too late may change that. The LFA EIS should offer that opportunity. The fact remains that there are few facts about the realities of human acoustical impacts on marine life. U.S. and NATO navies have a mission. Their sonar systems are an increasing problem meant to address increasing threats, whether real or imagined, from quiet submarines.

Also in mid-June, the U.S. Navy concluded in a Final EIS that explosive shock tests of the Seawolf submarine would be less of a threat to marine mammals and turtles if conducted off Mayport, FL, rather than off Norfolk, VA. The tests will proceed over several months in 2000, exploding five 10,000 lb charges at different ranges to judge potential combat damage to this new class of submarine. CSI commented on this EIS in opposition to these tests.

With unintentional irony the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sought public comments in June on applications and proposed authorizations for small numbers of marine mammals to be "disturbed" during seismic surveys in the Western Beaufort Sea, Alaska, beginning in October. Affected species included bowhead, gray, and beluga whales, and ringed, spotted, and bearded seals. A major concern was that bowheads might not be as accessible to Native American whalers!

Previous articles on the LFA:

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