Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XIV No. 3 - July 2005

Recent Developments on the Ocean Noise Issue

By William Rossiter

Ocean Noise issues were heard at the United Nations during the week of World Oceans Day, June 8th, thanks to the very hard work of Dr. Marsha Green for Ocean Mammal Institute, Sigrid Lueber for Swiss Working Group for the Protection of Marine Mammals, and Elsa Cabera for Chile's Centro de Conservación Cetacea. Joined by representatives of the Animal Welfare Institute, Mexico's COMARINO, EarthMedia, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Seaflow, they represented 140 organizations coming together as the International Ocean Noise Coalition (IONC). The coalition was formed to advocate for UN leadership for initiating and appointing the Multinational Task Force to develop international ocean noise regulations, and to encourage the use of quieter, alternative technologies to limit adverse impacts on marine life. CSI's Bill Rossiter joined them briefly, and CSI funded Cabera's travel from Chile.

The opportunity was the UN's Sixth "Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea" (UNICPOLOS), empowered by Part XII of the LOS obligating the UN to protect the marine environment. Both Dr. Green and COMARINO's Dr. Yolanda Alaniz presented speeches to the Plenary, and the team spent the week in meetings with delegates, high level UN authorities, and the media. On behalf of the coalition they presented the UN with a Position Statement, and a Petition that began: "We are deeply concerned about the growing use of intense human-generated noise in the marine environment, particularly caused by use of explosives, oceanographic experiments, geophysical research, underwater construction, ship traffic, intense active sonars and air guns used for seismic surveys for oil and related activities. There is grave concern that proliferation of these noise sources poses a significant threat to marine mammals, fish and other ocean wildlife."

The Position Statement and Petition included dramatic reminders of how quickly the problems are growing, but also how the world's authorities are recognizing the threats. The trend is very positive: since August 2003 the Parties of the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS), International Whaling Commission's (IWC) Scientific Committee, European Parliament, Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS), and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) have all made strong statements calling for solutions to what they all acknowledge are serious and growing problems with anthropogenic noise in the oceans.

The UN's perspective is perhaps more complex, but all the effort by the IONC worked. Direct responses showed that to many at the UN the noise issue relates to the future survival of vulnerable human societies. The week's events drew the UN's attention to the calamitous collapse of commercial fisheries, increasing evidence that fisheries are directly impacted by human noise, and concluded that the ocean noise issue is now pertinent to the health if not the development of many nations. The emphasis on fisheries was particularly helpful, underscoring the need for those of us concerned with the issue for its impact on cetaceans to broaden our perspectives. A short, superb coalition video by the Whaleman Foundation presented the evidence particularly well.

The Final Report of the UNICPOLOS, to be reviewed in the "Oceans and the Law of the Sea" agenda item at the UN's 60th session, proposes that the General Assembly: "Request further studies and consideration of the impacts of ocean noise on fisheries and living marine resources." At first glance that may not seem like much, but it is enough to stimulate excellent future progress.

Naval objections to constraints on active sonar use surfaced during discussions Rossiter had with the European Union's Law of the Sea authority and a representative of Great Britain (which is currently testing the Royal Navy's 2087 LFA system, the subject of a critical British documentary in July). Their underlying political perception seemed to be that, while political authorities will continue to recommend changes to lessen impacts, and both they and the navies know of the damage from sonars, no navy will allow its sonars to be constrained without a wasteful battle.

The active sonar issue has already been a wasteful battle for a decade, as CSI and others can attest, with the US Navy enlisting other nation's navies as allies to assert that damage from operational military noises must be accepted as collateral damage, and cannot be regulated or constrained without a threat to national security. This is politically and publicly unacceptable, and besides costing them credibility, the stonewalling has set up future failures to procure new systems and maintain influence. Simply put, whatever the Navy says is self-serving and questionable, overusing the war on terror as their own security blanket. NMFS seems to have been sucked into the Navy's wake in several ways, with an unseemly implication of collusion that does both services injury.

On the surface almost the only movement to constrain sonars has come from litigation. The Navy has thrown away assets and credibility on sometimes silly public relations efforts to deny and then deny some more. One high ranking representative in a public meeting even questioned the validity of the IWC's Scientific Committee's 2004 Annex K, an impressive and credible statement on the impact of human noise, and perhaps sensing he had embarrassed himself, threw in the standard flak about the Navy being a "responsible steward of the sea".

Has there been any real progress towards enabling sonars to coexist with marine life? Yes, but mostly under the surface, often without public awareness, as operational changes to make sonar use less damaging have been made to techniques, standards, schedules, and reporting, albeit after wreaking havoc somewhere. Considerable effort, for example, has tried to keep sonars and beaked whales apart in the Mediterranean and other hot spots. Hopefully these changes have been motivated by more than public image concerns. Some in the command chain must be an aware that the Navy and the Mission really are just a part of the Whole, and a modern Navy can maintain the peace without leaving a wake of destruction. So why then must they plant a sonar training range amidst whales and dolphins off the East Coast?

660 square miles of ocean off North Carolina's Onslow Bay is the Navy's preferred site for a new sonar training range. Other contenders are waters off Virginia's Wallops Island or Jacksonville, Florida, where initial surveys have shown more marine mammals. In response to considerable criticism the Navy has said: "Sometimes it's inconvenient, but we're going to do the right thing for the right reasons." While wondering what "the right thing" is to the Navy, an environmental impact statement may clarify what is planned for the range, but given recent history, lawsuits will challenge the EIS and the range still will be allowed. A recent sonar exercise amplified concerns:

Thirty-four whales of various species stranded and died on North Carolina's Outer Banks in January. A Navy anti-sub exercise was practicing 50 miles offshore. Officials discounted that as a cause of the strandings, but relevant data from those strandings has been withheld. These data are only part of the material sought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that had been nearly ignored by the Bush administration for a year, when NRDC finally sued the administration in June. CSI and other organizations involved in the issue know there are thousands of pages of unreleased documents related to mass strandings and mortalities of marine mammals exposed to military sonar, but only 12 documents totaling fewer than 25 pages had been received from NRDC's FOIA request.

When the USS Shoup used its C53 sonar while passing through Washington's Haro Strait in 2003 local experts documented whale and porpoise stress reactions, and studies of 14 coincidental strandings did not rule out acoustic trauma as their cause. The Navy now requires higher command authority to operate sonars in the area, but in late June a Canadian naval vessel transited the area with sonars active. The unique geology of Haro Strait provides valuable sonar training, but to the whales it's like a rock concert in a closet. Did the Canadians care? What is the "right thing" here?

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