Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XI No. 1 - January 2002


"Full Speed Ahead, Damn the Noise"

By William Rossiter


With the expanding noise issues (below) let's not take our focus off the Low Frequency Active (LFA) Sonar. It is about to seize center stage again. NMFS is expected to publish a Final Rule any day now, followed by a Letter of Authorization (LOA) that would permit the LFA, contingent upon conducting research on questions that have not been answered. Is this legal? What if the questions cannot be answered? The basic reason for the whole process has been to declare and justify the probability of killing or harming marine mammals. A contingent permit would be tacit admission that current research cannot justify the finding that LFA will not have a significant negative impact. Meanwhile current research continues to add to questions left unanswered by the EIS process, as we learn of more ways that LFA-type noises harm whales, and at ranges well beyond any mitigation possibilities. How can anyone say with any certainty that endangered species will not be affected? How can anyone guess the sheer numbers of affected animals? Is NMFS flirting with yet another lawsuit by authorizing the LFA with temporary mitigations while research is underway? Why are the Navy and NMFS inviting lawsuits? Because they cannot justify the LFA with reasonable science, so they will take a chance that they can win in court. Failing that they can always play the National Security card again. The point to this farce is that the Navy is expected to take the LOA essentially as a green light to fit the LFA to more waiting ships and begin shakedowns and operations immediately. Except for tests and training, the Navy will then be able to use the LFA in the black, classified mode, free of any constraints. They have fought for over fifteen years to get this now-outmoded system in the water. You can almost hear some Pentagon Admiral saying, "damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!"

The unanswered questions present many dilemmas. How do we know when noise causes "significant" behavioral responses in wild whales, when the behaviors may be too subtle and the effects, like reproductive failures, may not be measurable for years? How do we know when noise harms the hearing of baleen, sperm and beaked whales? Can this be done without harming any? Previous research stopped short of subjecting whales to sounds above 155 decibels (dB) for their safety, yet the Navy asserts that 180 dB is still safe, and apparently, that new tests can explore responses above received levels of 155 dB without doing harm. Is it humane to subject a stressed, dying stranded humpback, for example, to loud noises to test when deafness starts? How can such tests be manipulated to answer the right questions about hearing in all free, healthy whales? A combined NMFS and ONR budget of nearly 13 million dollars this year will push for answers. Is it within the spirit of the law to have the Navy fund and do almost all the research to address the many questions that are holding up their LFA? CSI and others, including many scientists, are concerned that the experiments themselves will do harm.

A few years ago everyone focused on deaf whales, assuming that was the main risk with the Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFA), seismic surveys, and other very loud manmade noises. Today many "normal" Navy sonars also are recognized as threats, and science is struggling with an array of damaging effects caused by specific noises on specific parts of specific whales and dolphins; our loud noises can cause them to die in several ways other than deafness. While scientists explore the fringe of knowledge to understand what we are doing to marine life, politicians and managers remain unable or unwilling even to stop the increase in noise, demanding absolute proof that science has not been able to provide. The ultimate flaw in the entire noise issue is that the precautionary approach is seen as too costly, and so we wait.

Another flaw has been that different scientific and technical fields do not often work together, or even use the same language to address problems. Acousticians, biologists, physicists, engineers, and veterinarians have to come together to explore what each knows, or needs to know. Throw in a few Navy people, lawyers and advocates to spark things up. This opportunity came at a special workshop on anthropogenic noise at December's annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA). The LFA and other sonars were discussed in detail. Panels were urged to provide counterpoints. Some tempers flared. CSI had hoped that this prestigious meeting would have the ASA formally acknowledge anthropogenic noise as a major problem deserving specific attention, and inspire the ASA's experts to address the gaps in research. Was this professionally reticent community moved to get involved? Time will tell.

Still another flaw is the need to translate technical jargon for managers, politicians and the public. The technical aspects can be so confusing and obscure that word choices often play an intentional role in evading problems, because nonspecialists do not understand what was meant. The choice is simple: either the experts learn enough to explain what they know or need to others, or the experts will continue to work alone, without the ingenuity and creative genius of a broad spectrum of concerned minds. The arrogant and ultimate flaw of jargon is that it does not communicate widely enough, the ultimate purpose of good science. Through Whales Alive! CSI has tried to translate the jargon since 1996. In the July 2001 issue I made an earnest attempt to explain what experts seemed to be saying might happen when certain noises, like loud mid-range sonars, hit deep diving cetaceans. I was publicly using the best information to guess at things no human has experienced, and express concern based mostly on caution. No experts complained. Perhaps I got it right (or did anyone read it)? Then why couldn't experts have done the same before? Because experts do not like to generalize or speculate publicly.

Should we impose constraints on noisemakers based on similar speculations? Yes! There are enough clues and warning signs to justify constraints. To argue that empirical proof is always required before taking precautionary action is simply arrogant. Here is such a clue, from very recent and technical work: Deep-diving marine mammals live on the extreme edge, adapted to conditions that would kill us in seconds. At the depths they must exploit regularly just to find food, the air in their bodies is squeezed into small spaces, often next to blood vessels. Their blood can be supersaturated with gasses during "normal" long dives. If they are then exposed to loud manmade noises, recent experiments by the Navy and others show that bubbles might form in a whale's blood with specific noises as loud as 190 dB. But, under extreme circumstances (read "normal" for deep divers?) received levels near 150 dB also might "activate" small bubbles that, even long after the noise stopped, would expand in the blood as the whale came up. The result would be what humans call the bends.

A very important clue came from the mass stranding in the Bahamas in March 2000, which provoked very significant research. The interim report is available at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/prot_res/overview/Interim_Bahamas_Report.pdf (requires Adobe Acrobat reader). Give the Navy credit for funding and publicizing the report, then count the caveats in their conclusion: "To the maximum extent practical, the Navy will adopt measures in its future peacetime training, including those involving the use of tactical mid-range sonars, to avoid the taking of marine mammals. Under the circumstances investigated in this report, two actions are recommended for the Navy. These are to understand the mechanisms by which sonar sounds affect marine mammal tissue or behavior, and to concurrently put into place mitigation measures that will protect animals to the maximum extent possible and not jeopardize National Security."

The report acknowledges the probable role that naval midrange tactical sonars played in the deaths of some of the 17 cetaceans known to have stranded. An unusual combination of several contributory factors acting together included calm water, a restrictive ocean channel, and underwater topography that concentrated sonar energy in the top 200 meters of the ocean. Only four whales from the Bahamas event had tissue and bone samples analyzed, because of the complexity of timely collection and transport. Three whales had bleeding in the inner ear and one other had blood around the brain. The injuries were consistent with a head blow or very loud sounds. Although the report states that ten whales were returned to the water alive it ignored the fact that the entire population has disappeared, according to scientists studying this population long before the event. The report also ignored reports that other navies may have been involved. Throughout this long investigation some official denials relied upon the lack of bodies to minimize the probable damage. Again, the arrogance of demanding empirical proof before taking precautionary action.

Such denials feed on the inherent conflicts between Science, which demands empirical fact, Politics, which demands economical expediency, the Navy, which has used National Security as a cover, Bureaucracy, which demands far too much time, study, and money, and the rest of Us, who just ask that we all be more careful while making so many loud noises. It is up to Us to make enough public and political noise to keep the noisemakers from winning and the whales from losing.


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