Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XV No. 3 - July 2006


CSI's Noisy About Noise

By William Rossiter, CSI President


RIMPAC 06, the Rim of the Pacific Training Exercise, covered in more detail below, received the first-ever authorization permit for active sonar use from NMFS just days before transmissions were scheduled to begin. But a temporary restraining order (TRO), granted after a volley of legal actions over the Independence Day holiday weekend, stopped all active sonar use pending a Court review. The immense cost and waste of running RIMPAC 06 without active sonars was entirely the responsibility of the US Navy. They must accept the blame for purposely holding back their request for a final permit for RIMPAC 06 until the last minute, intentionally pressuring NMFS to act in violation of the law, and defiantly asserting that the Navy deserves to be exempt from the law, as well as science, logic and reason.

The NMFS permit had immediately triggered a lawsuit and application for a TRO from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), CSI and other plaintiffs, to block illegal sonar use in RIMPAC. The Department of Defense (DoD) immediately counterattacked with a blanket six month national defense exemption from the MMPA for all mid-frequency active sonar use during major training exercises and on established ranges and operating areas, apparently at least 13 major events. But on 3 July the US District Court Central District of California issued the TRO, saying that NRDC had offered "considerable convincing scientific evidence demonstrating that the Navy's use of MFA sonar can kill, injure, and disturb many marine species, including marine mammals" and that "The harm to the Defendants if the Navy is temporarily enjoined from proceeding with RIMPAC 2006, as scheduled, until such time as a preliminary injunction hearing can be held, is substantially outweighed by the potential harm to the human environment."

After intense negotiations attorneys for NRDC and the Navy agreed to a Court-approved settlement that allowed active sonar use during RIMPAC under restrictions the Navy previously had refused to consider. These included: a 25 nm no-sonar buffer zone around the new National Monument; a dedicated marine mammal observer on all sonar surface ships; a commitment to have at least three other non-dedicated full-time observers also looking for marine mammals from all sonar surface ships; and aerial and passive acoustic monitoring with reporting requirements. While the Navy got off lightly to some they have continued to give ground on essential mitigations. RIMPAC provided a legal opportunity to review the implications of active sonars, and increased the pressure on the Navy with the pending NRDC mid-frequency sonar lawsuit, to which CSI is also a co-plaintiff.

NMFS's flawed RIMPAC permit justified the suit, serving notice that rushed, inadequate and irresponsible permits will be sued for MMPA and NEPA violations. The scientific evidence supporting anthropogenic noise concerns continues to grow, and CSI and others will continue to promote the public's responsibility to be proactive and aware in this rapidly changing world.

RIMPAC 04 had no similar permits, constraints or exemptions, but was noteworthy for the historical first of 150-200 melon-headed whales circling tightly, in apparent distress, inside Hanalei Bay, Kauai. The whales refused to leave the Bay even as volunteers in kayaks tried to make them move out. Meanwhile, but many miles away, naval sonars were in use in RIMPAC 04 exercises. When asked about the event during a meeting of the Marine Mammal Commission's Noise Advisory Panel, the Admiral representing the Navy was unable to accept that sonars might have caused the whales to enter the bay, and the higher command he checked with apparently agreed. After a more reasonable and objective review of the event, including the ships, sonars, and the water environment, an expert panel labeled the naval sonar transmissions as "a plausible, if not likely, contributing factor in what may have been a confluence of events."

Photo by Gretchen Johnson

Photo by Gretchen Johnson

RIMPAC 06 ends in late July, having engaged 40 warships from Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Peru, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. It included six subs, 160 aircraft, 19,000 combined personnel, and a lot of noisemakers. The threat scenario was focused on shallow water antisubmarine warfare and "choke point" conflicts. The US Navy did impose some restrictions on active sonar use by any participating vessel or aircraft, but they were demonstrably inadequate: No active sonars could operate within 25 kilometers of a restricted zone, although scientific evidence would demand 25 miles instead, plus a cautionary zone. The zones were defined by waters 200 meters deep around the islands of Hawaii, but numerous excluded seamounts are known to have large numbers of cetaceans nearby. Aerial surveys for marine mammals in the active area were a good idea, until one considered the reliability of seeing any in bad weather. Shore stations to monitor "unusual and unique activity" by marine mammals did not match the need to shut down operations if beaked whales were seen. And an evaluation of all marine mammal activity during the exercise was limited by observer coverage and access. Restrictions also included reducing sonar emissions by six decibels when a marine mammal was seen within a kilometer; ten decibels if within 500 meters, and shutdown within 300 meters. Assuming this applied to approaching and bowriding dolphins it marks a particularly significant admission about the vulnerability of bowriding dolphins that the Navy had insisted was not an issue at the proposed East Coast Undersea Warfare Training Range.

One significant exception allowed unrestricted sonar use during "choke point" exercises in the channel between Maui and the Big island and Niihau and Kauai. But "choke points" have been identified as especially vulnerable environments for sonar impacts because of the underwater slopes, acoustic ducts and general confinement. It is all about acceptable collateral damage: All military forces expect losses of people and equipment during major exercises, especially if the war game is to be realistic. Although this RIMPAC marks the first time some self-imposed constraints have been applied by the Navy to active sonars, the entrenched acceptance remains that marine mammal casualties are unfortunate but necessary. CSI is looking for a better balance more in tune with the needs of our modern world. We believe the Navy can keep us safe without killing so many things.

Is the US Navy at war with the world? CSI's decade of involvement with sonar issues has helped us to understand how many pieces of the puzzle fit together, but the biggest holes are still empirical facts about active sonars' effects on marine life, and how to actually do something to stop those impacts. By April's Whales Alive! the pieces made us conclude that sonars may do most of their damage to cetaceans over very long ranges, as groups may flee sounds they have learned to fear, perhaps creating population-level impacts over large areas. Equally scary pieces fell into place at the UN recently. We must now assume that the US Navy has made a command decision to oppose anything, anywhere that might try to tell them what to do with active sonars, and the US government is following their lead. CSI has acknowledged the Navy's own efforts to mitigate sonar impacts with operational changes, and we respect the absolute need to fulfill their mission, but we were startled by the blunt and aggressive US opposition to even discussing international regulations on anthropogenic ocean noise at the UN in mid-June.

We are grateful to Dr. Marsha Green, President of the Ocean Mammal Institute and Director of the International Ocean Noise Coalition (IONC), for allowing us to include parts of her report on IONC's work at the UN here:

"IONC representatives from the United States, Mexico, and Canada attended the seventh meeting of the Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea at the United Nations (UNICPOLOS-7) June 12-15, 2006. The Coalition also had raised the issue of underwater noise pollution at the sixth meeting of UNICPOLOS in June 2005 and after intense negotiations in the fall of 2005, the General Assembly passed Resolution 60/30 that `Encourages further studies and consideration of the impacts of ocean noise on marine living resources'. In July, 2005 the U.N. Secretary General prominently included the problem of ocean noise in his report to the General Assembly on issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The report lists anthropogenic noise as one of five `current major threats to some populations of whales and other cetaceans', and also includes noise as one of the ten `main current and foreseeable impacts on marine biodiversity' on the high seas.

"At UNICPOLOS-7 the Coalition presented a program `Ocean Noise and the Marine Ecosystem: Impacts and Solutions'. Noise also was mentioned as a threat to marine life by several panelists during the week long meeting. Throughout the week States were given the opportunity in informal evening sessions to initially respond to the Co-Chairpersons' Proposed Draft Elements Report based on discussions in each day's plenary. The Co-Chairs' Elements Report sets agenda items for negotiating the Oceans Resolution language prior to the General Assembly meeting in the fall."

"Underwater noise pollution became the most contentious issue at the meeting" and the US succeeded in having wording on ocean noise manipulated out of one list and into a separate statement in the Co-Chair's Report that read: "Understanding through increased research and consideration of the impacts of underwater noise on marine ecosystems." It would be illuminating and even fun to include the haggling between nations in response to the US's objections that noise and climate change should not be in the Report, but we don't have space. At least noise was not completely removed from the UN document, and this text will become part of this fall's negotiations on the draft of the annual Oceans Resolution for the General Assembly. Many people remain baffled by these formal negotiations and debates at the UN, where final results swing on a word change. We should all be very grateful for Dr. Green and others working through the IONC, as their diplomatic advocacy apparently has convinced many nations and the European Commission that anthropogenic ocean noise is an issue that cannot be ignored.

So why does the US actively oppose any international regulations to limit anthropogenic noise in the oceans? The following is guesswork from a few pieces in the big puzzle that are all stamped "US Navy": First, it appears that the Navy has decided that any regulations on any noise source, like shipping or seismic surveys, will eventually chip away at their needs to operate active sonars. This seems to be based more on entrenched attitudes and egos than operational need. Second, they may be concerned that any acoustic-impact science may contribute to the body of evidence clarifying the absolute impacts from sonars, and it will be interesting to see what the Office of Naval Research does and does not fund. Third, the Navy has acknowledged that some active sonars do harm marine life, the evidence will grow, current mitigations have limited value, but mission requirements demand that eventual impacts be considered collateral damage. Fourth, as they could not make some noises legally, they convinced the whole Defense Department to lobby for weakened landmark environmental legislation. Fifth, the Navy-orchestrated legislative changes succeeded, giving the Department of Defense major exemptions to environmental laws, as shown with RIMPAC 06 ignoring the MMPA. And sixth, as demonstrated at the UN, the Navy may have swung the State Department and the Administration against any and all international noise regulations, so as to prevent further pressures to constrain naval sonars.

But the noise issues are much bigger than just sonars. The human din in the oceans is worse every day. The impacts from our noise on fish stocks and the diversity of marine life are now economically measurable. It is neither responsible nor logical to oppose all international noise regulations, especially just to serve the limited needs of active sonar operations. In fact, as we come to understand the long-term implications, the Navy's single-issue approach will eventually harm our nation's security.

We admit to a certain bias: CSI is a co-plaintiff in several suits opposing naval sonars: LFA I and II, mid-frequency active sonars, and RIMPAC (see above). But we also are active on many other noise issues, and we see no evidence that they are "chipping away" at active sonar use. We are disgusted that the US Navy would prefer that human ocean noise grow unchecked just so they do not feel threatened by pressures to limit sonars. Even NATO agrees that some sonar constraints are appropriate, and reports suggest that our Navy has fought that attitude with equal vigor.

If this is all true, is it all coming from a few people in the Navy chain of command, or is it a widely held view with full Administration approval? To outsiders it is the behavior of insecure bullies, not our Navy we want to think of as capable of protecting us from harm.

The "solution" is for the Navy to accept the reality that everyone else in the world has no trouble separating sonars from other sources, like shipping and seismic surveys. Each must be addressed separately; international regulations on shipping and seismic surveys are long overdue, and increasingly necessary. Regulations could be enacted with no effect on sonar use, but to be objective, no one has a clue how to regulate international shipping noise. Many, including the UN, would prefer regulating other sources as soon as possible, rather than waste more years in protracted battles over sonar.

Annex K of the IWC 58 Report, from the Scientific Committee's Standing Working Group on Environmental Concerns, again provides objective and concerning evidence of potential impacts from oceanic human noise. The primary focus was the pre-meeting workshop on seismic surveys and noise. The annual State of the Cetacean Environment Report (SOCER), also from this Working Group, has an updated Anthropogenic Noise section with some focus on the Indian Ocean. Both are available at http://www.AcousticEcology.org/sriwc58.html. Together these resources provide a library of the most current and very best information available. Anyone serious about understanding ocean noise impacts will find these resources invaluable; they are must-reads.

Controlled Exposure Experiments, CEE's, are red-hot controversial because some people don't like the idea of other people making lots of noise just to see what happens to whales and dolphins. In fact, in the last few years so many CEE research projects have been threatened or sued to a standstill, or just delayed, that the entire research arena has been slowed to a crawl. Because of the risks researchers are more reluctant, funders are more conservative, and the government seems to prefer no CEE's at all to the threat of being sued (because the government must officially permit such research it is a likely target for any suit trying to stop a project).

CEE's are about making certain human noise under controlled conditions to understand the impacts on certain cetaceans. CSI doesn't believe that all CEE's are bad, some are essential for progress in reducing noise impacts, and if properly done CEE's can find the facts we all need while staying well below the slightest potential for causing harm. The underlying problem is in trusting the people that want to do the work to keep the animals' interests foremost. Some scientists simply do not care enough, and there are always people ready to sacrifice an animal to get some fact, voiding the possibilities for the very cautious, caring scientists. Horrific examples of US Navy-related tests on "their" cetaceans have created a wall of general opposition, which the Navy steps around anyway with exemptions and classified programs.

CEE's represent a spectrum of research objectives, from playing a whale's calls back to the whale, to searching for noises that will cause whales to avoid boats, or to finding out how much noise deafens dolphins. CSI is certainly ready to fight some, but there are several we wish would happen, simply because the right people could find the answers we all need to stop some noise impacts. CSI wants to support legitimate CEE projects done by specialists who care deeply about not harming the animals, expert enough to establish and adhere to safeguards, and open about their goals and results.

So what about this one? Biologists from the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, want to define the frequencies and power levels of sonar noises that make orcas stressed. The project would attach tags to orcas to document their behavior as they hear sonar sounds get louder, and judge stress by the orcas moving away or not feeding. Avoidance reactions may not be good measures of stress, because some animals will or must put up with anything, even while suffering. Others might freak out too early, and if they are the leaders their whole group will flee. And what really caused the behavior to change? What is the "normal" threshold for most animals? And, in the end, what changes in behavior constitute regulatory levels of impact concerns. Unfortunately, to reach that level all the animals would be far beyond the stress levels determined by this study. But the kicker is that the Royal Navy seems as adamant as the US' to fight outside interference. What good would unequivocal evidence of sonar-caused stress do if the Royal Navy refused to accept it? Would you accept this CEE proposal?

Underwater Acoustics 2006 is a three tiered technical course that will be given 4-8 September in Great Britain. It will begin with the essential basics and work up to acoustic monitoring of marine wildlife. Details at: http://www.seiche.com/.

A scientific workshop to better understand wind farm impacts will be held 4 September 2006 in Stralsund, Germany. The droll title is "Static Acoustic Monitoring (SAM) as a tool for Environmental Impact Studies with Emphasis on Offshore Wind Farm Constructions", and the discussions will include case studies, current problem areas, and gadgets such as the T-POD, a self-contained submersible data-logger for porpoises and dolphins made in the UK. The working languages will be English and German. CSI hopes many specialists from the US will attend, particularly those working on the controversial wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, MA. There has been much work in Europe on open water wind farms and their marine effects, and the exchange of information would do us all good.


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