Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XVI No. 4 - October 2007

The Sonar War on Whales

By William Rossiter, CSI President

The Sonar War on Whales continues, and CSI continues to fight the U.S. Navy's tactics with all the weapons at our disposal. That includes participating in several lawsuits, as always superbly led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Once again we thank our CSI members who have become Declarants in various lawsuits, providing information and enabling CSI to participate.

Much of CSI's time goes into writing public comments on various permit applications, proposed letters of authorization, and environmental impact statements (EIS), where four realities have become obvious: First, although duly read, often by some contracted company, the most carefully prepared public comments are very, very, very rarely absorbed into a final product. However, in some cases comments showed the proposal to be so ridiculous that it was simply trashed and redone. Second, in recent months there have been several EIS's, authorizations and permit comment periods open at once, often oddly coincidental to holidays and vacation time. Third, the first two suggest extraordinary cooperation between NMFS and the Navy, essentially a rubber stamp process. Fourth, the recent five-year, worldwide authorization comment period for the resurrected LFA was just 15 days! LFA of course refers to the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar. Long, odd names and many initials may also be a Navy tactic!

But one Navy tactic has most of our attention: Over a decade after clear evidence that operational use of military sonars can result in injuries and death to cetaceans, is there any significant, unclassified research on sonar impacts? The Navy has every right to say that there is little evidence that their sonars damage cetaceans, because, while the Office of Naval Research controls or influences the great majority of money committed to marine mammal research in the U.S., by not publicly funding real research using real sonars they show that they do not want any real answers. Not to sound conspiratorial, but this suggests that some classified work with real sonars on real whales, under operational or controlled conditions, has provided proof that the Navy does not want to become public. Given the current climate, the threat to what the Navy considers to be National Security is likely to keep such results classified.

There is ONR-sponsored research, but we do not think it will help anyone mitigate sonar impacts. Three million dollars from you, the taxpayer, now is being spent on a research project in the Bahamas that uses some very talented people to find and tag whales on a special Navy range equipped with all sorts of electronics, and then to make noises to learn what the whales do. But they do not use actual mid-frequency sonars under operational conditions, the way the whales might hear them in the Pacific, Bahamas, or Mediterranean, as ships go about their duties. The lead scientist in this project is the Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Acoustics Science Program, who was sadly right to say, "We still know almost nothing about the reactions of marine mammals to underwater sound." But why, after so many years, is this still true?

Have you winced at the sound of fingernails on a blackboard? Imagine a study where the same frequencies were made from some electronic device to make something a bit like the offending noise, but not a blackboard and nail. As you didn't wince, some scientist would say that the blackboard noise didn't bother you. But the sound you heard wasn't the same. Sound is what we, or whales perceive, not just the x,y,z factors of frequency, amplitude, harmonics, modulation, environment and whatever. If the real sound causes behaviors that result in injury and death the real sound must be used.

Meanwhile, outside of Navy influence, real research is being tried. But here the Navy refuses to even let the researchers near sonar-producing vessels, again citing National Security. It is unfortunate for suffering cetaceans that progress in mitigating sonar's impacts will take more dramatic events of dying whales, bloodied on a beach, with a willing and complicated research effort into the causes. Or, if we're lucky, the right experts will be at the right place and time to witness what really happens when cetaceans react to sonars. It will happen.

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