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Evidence growing that Navy's ultra-loud active sonar systems are deadly to whales and other marine life.


23rd July 2003

Compiled from the following sources:
CBS News, ~~ WRAL, ~~ KOMO TV (1), ~~ KOMO TV (2), ~~ Seattle Post-Intelligence (1), ~~ Seattle Post-Intelligence (2), ~~ Seattle Post-Intelligence (3), ~~ Seattle Post-Intelligence (4), ~~ Wired, ~~ The Scotsman, and Sunday Herald.

On May 5, 2003, as his research boat slowed and the engine noise faded, David Bain heard the distinctive sound of Navy sonar in the Haro Strait off San Juan Island. The orca researcher had heard it before, using special underwater listening devices. But this was different. The intense, screechy whistling was plainly audible above the water's surface, indeed loud enough for humans to hear on shore.

"Do you hear those sounds?" asked a nearby whale-watching boat over the VHF radio.

Bain grabbed his binoculars and scanned the horizon. He spotted a Navy vessel so far away that its hull was hidden by the Earth's curve - perhaps 10 miles off. Only its towering superstructure was visible over the horizon.

Despite the ship's distance, the orcas Bain had come to study were spooked. They abruptly stopped feeding, gathered in a tightly knit group, then swam to shore and circled up in an odd configuration. A minke whale swam away quickly, as if in a panic. Dall's porpoises hid in a bay until the Everett-based USS Shoup passed by.

Later, harbour porpoises washed up dead on area beaches. Records going back to 1995 show that the 11 porpoises found dead in the north Puget Sound area in May 2003 is by far the highest for that month. Most years, it is only one or two.

Witnesses to the May 5 Haro Strait incident say the sonar system is definitely affecting marine mammals, which depend on their extraordinarily sensitive hearing to keep them alive, allowing them to navigate and find food and mates. The sonar noise could have hurt their ears, possibly causing them to dive too deeply in their attempts to escape the sound and causing further damage. The injuries could also be compounded by other problems, such as disease and exposure to toxic pollutants.

"I think what we were seeing was fear reactions in the different species," said Bain, a University of Washington researcher who has studied marine mammals for 25 years.

"They acted agitated. ... This was clearly causing a flight response," said Ken Balcomb, an independent researcher from San Juan Island who has tracked whale-sonar interactions around the world, only to witness this spectacle in part from his back porch. Balcomb videotaped the response of killer whales to the Shoup sonar tests and an underwater microphone recorded the ear-splitting, high-pitched sound. Whale experts say the video shows the orcas are clearly distressed.

"I'm convinced it's having an effect on their behaviour at the very least," says Balcomb, a Navy veteran who worked on sonar during the Vietnam War. "I believe it's also injuring and killing some. ... It's extremely important for our government to know if one of our weapons systems or defense systems is destroying our environment. ... If we're inadvertently killing them, we've got to find out."

At least one of the porpoises found dead in May after the Haro Strait incident showed signs of internal bleeding that could have been caused by the navy sonar. The Orca Network cited a recently completed radiological test on the carcass, which was later turned over to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Balcomb took the porpoise head to a private Seattle lab recently, along with the two ear bones from a Baird's beaked whale that stranded at La Push on Jan. 22, the Orca Network reported. "Both the porpoise and the Baird's whale showed evidence ... consistent with hemorrhagic trauma that could be due to" naval use of sonar, the Orca Network said.

Now scientists from around the country have begun necropsies on the more than a dozen harbour porpoises found in Puget Sound in May, hoping to discover whether the sonar tests contributed to their deaths. The scientists began work in the dissection room at the National Marine Mammal Lab, part of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regional headquarters in Washington State. In all, 13 dead porpoises were found beached or floating between May 2 and May 20 - eight of them on or after May 5.

The exams will help determine whether mid-range sonar testing by the guided-missile destroyer USS Shoup in Haro Strait, which separates Washington State's San Juan Islands and Canada's Vancouver Island, was a factor in any of the deaths. Over the weekend, the porpoises were given a CT - computerized tomography - scan, which takes multiple X-ray images. The CT scan can reveal if the fluid in the inner ear has any signs of haemorrhaging, scientists said. It can also show if the tissue or muscles were damaged by "blast trauma," such as what might be caused by sound waves. This trauma would show widespread injury, versus blunt trauma where damage would be localized to a specific site of impact.

A coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued the Navy and the fisheries service in federal court last summer to block the use of a new low-frequency sonar system to identify enemy submarines. Joel Reynolds, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, "We know that this sort of sonar interferes with critical life functions. We know that it can injure them or even kill them. It's like dying from a very, very intense migraine headache."

In response, the Defense Department is asking Congress for an expanded exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other environmental laws so it can continue using the more powerful low-frequency sonar system. Military planners hope the new sonar will protect against a new generation of ultra-quiet submarines.

But environmentalists and scientists such as Bain and Balcomb say the low-frequency sonar system is likely to harm whales and other creatures across as much as three-quarters of the world's oceans. The Navy says it will operate the new low-frequency system to minimize harm to sea life and humans, but critics note that the older, less-powerful mid-frequency sonar system, even when used according to a Navy safety plan, can cause fatal rupturing of the ears in whales and appears to trigger some marine mammals to beach themselves, causing some to die. Some scientists and environmentalists fear that the more-powerful sonar could harm marine mammals in up to 75 percent of the world's oceans. In 2001, tests by the Navy and the NMFS determined that mid-range sonar tests in the Bahamas caused the deaths of seven beaked whales whose carcasses were recovered.

"There's been a whole series of strandings associated with Navy sonar going back years at this point," said Andrew Wetzler, a lawyer for the NRDC. "There is every reason to believe, and lots of scientific indications, that low-frequency sonar, which is not being used much yet, poses an even greater danger."

Indeed, the May 5 incident in Haro Strait is only the latest in a string of indications that powerful naval sonar is harming marine mammals:

* Fifteen beaked whales, two minke whales and a dolphin beached themselves after a naval exercise in the Bahamas in March 2000. Seven died, and scientists found blood around the brain as well as in and around the inner ear. The whales appear to have swum at a pace equivalent to a human's sprint for 10 to 30 miles before landing on the beach - probably injured, disoriented and panicked, says researcher Ken Balcomb. CT scans showed bleeding around their ears and brains, and a Navy-sponsored report conceded that it is "highly likely" that sonar helped cause the whales to beach themselves.

* A beaked whale and a humpback whale stranded on the beach in Puerto Rico while naval exercises were taking place in April 2002. In January 1998 and May 2000, individual beaked whales stranded themselves in the area under similar circumstances.

* Four beaked whales swam ashore in the U.S. Virgin Islands in October 1999, when a wildlife official noted "loud naval sonar."

* Three beaked whales were found on the beach on Madeira Island in May 2000 at the time of a naval exercise. Scientists performed necropsies on two that showed bleeding in the eyes and lungs.

* Up to 19 beaked whales beached themselves in the Canary Islands in September 2002 following NATO naval exercises. At least 13 died, and the ones found alive appeared disoriented. Unusual bleeding was discovered in the animals' brains, spine and eyes. Five of the seven mass strandings there since 1985 have occurred around the time of naval exercises.

* In May 1996, during tests of a new and more powerful low-frequency sonar off the coast of Greece, 14 beaked whales stranded themselves. As in the Bahamas, some appear to have swum for many miles at a sprint pace before hitting the beach, possibly panicked and disoriented.

The souped-up low-frequency sonar system, louder than a rocket taking off, can be heard underwater for hundreds of miles. The sound startled researcher Mark McDonald as he sat listening to the clicks of sperm whales through an underwater device one night off the Washington coast. "This sound comes on that is so loud, people two rooms over ran over to see what it was," recalled McDonald, who studies underwater sound. "It was so loud I had to jump up and turn down the speakers."

Imagine McDonald's surprise when he later learned that the source of that noise had been about 1,000 miles away, near San Diego. It was an early test of the new low-frequency sonar that military planners hope will keep the United States ahead of China, North Korea, Iran and other nations running new ultra-quiet submarines. Unlike "passive" sonar, which listens for vessels' approach, the mid-frequency and low-frequency sonar systems are active, sending out loud bursts of sound in order to map the return of sound waves bouncing back, thereby allowing them to "see" under water.

Environmentalists point out that the Navy plans to expose whales to levels of sound more than 100 times that used in tests conducted so far. With eight deafeningly loud speakers, the new low-frequency sonar can produce up to 240 decibels of sound, according to NRDC attorney Joel Reynolds. That's the equivalent of standing next to a Saturn V rocket at takeoff, he said.

That's just near the sonar array. But water tends to carry low-frequency bass tones for tremendous distances. So even hundreds of miles away, the sound put out by low-frequency sonar is still heavy-metal-concert loud at 140 decibels, Reynolds said. Prolonged exposure to that much noise is bad for people: Musicians like Pete Townsend have had their hearing decimated by prolonged exposure. And whales rely on their ears a lot more than humans, using them to find mates and places to feed. Scientists studying the sonar already have noted the effects of active sonar on a number of animals, including gray and baleen whales, trout and otters. In each case, though, the Navy disputes that the effects are significant.

Scientists have speculated that whales that have beached themselves in areas where active sonar is being used are trying to escape loud sound that is painful to their sensitive ears. So they panic, dive very deep, run out of air and have to surface quickly. That may cause a whale version of the bends, or the hemorrhages around the head and ears scientists have found in whales beached near tests of active sonar systems.

Wetzler, the NRDC lawyer, is on a team of attorneys who filed suit to halt exercises with the new system. They won a partial victory last fall, when U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Laporte ordered the Navy to negotiate with the NRDC to find a safe training site. The two sides agreed on an area in the far western Pacific.

While Congress considers a Bush administration proposal to ease legal restrictions to help the Navy use the new sonar more freely, which could render the NRDC's lawsuit moot, in early July Laporte heard arguments by both sides. In October 2002, Laporte slapped a preliminary injunction against the use of the low-frequency active sonar system, ruling that the environmental plaintiffs "are likely to prevail on a number of issues" in the case. By authorizing the Navy to test the new sonar system in as much as 75 percent of the world's oceans, the Bush administration may have violated a number of environmental regulations, including provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The group of orcas involved in the Haro Strait incident are part of distinct populations that have dropped 15 percent since the mid-1990s and are listed as "depleted" by the NMFS. Scientists say exposure to long-lived toxic chemicals that affect reproduction such as PCBs is one reason the Puget Sound orca population is declining, along with reduced supplies of salmon and other fish that orcas eat. There probably are other little-understood factors at work, researchers say, possibly including noise from whale-watching boats and sonar.

Meanwhile, in a related story, Struan Stevenson, the Scottish chairman of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee, has called for an urgent investigation into claims that low-frequency active sonar could be destroying fragile fish stocks around Scotland’s coastline. Stevenson, a Conservative MEP, says evidence brought to the fisheries committee based on scientific research from military sources shows that fish can be killed after being exposed to the sonar.

Testimony before the committee revealed that fish exposed to sounds of the same frequency and duration from low frequency active sonar (LFAS) suffer mortality, internal injuries, eye haemorrhaging and auditory damage at levels above 160 decibels. Fifty-seven per cent of brown trout died after exposure to levels above 170 decibels and there were concerns that marine mammals, as well as human divers, could also be affected.

In addition, a study by Norway’s Institute of Marine Research revealed that trawl catch rates of haddock and cod fell by up to 70 percent over a 2,000 square mile area where low frequency air guns were being used, heightening fears that LFAS poses a "significant threat" to already depleted fish stocks throughout the world’s oceans.

Said Stevenson, "This is a matter of grave concern, particularly on the west coast of Scotland, where UK and US nuclear submarines regularly pass through the Firth of Clyde on their way to and from the naval base at Faslane. The collapse of fish stocks in the Firth of Clyde has been echoed around the rest of the UK coast and indeed across the globe. In light of the evidence it may not always be the fishermen who are to blame for dwindling fish stocks.

"I believe it is now time for the European Parliament to step in and carry out further investigations into the effects of LFAS on fishing, and I am writing to the research directorate of the European Parliament to look into this as a matter of urgency. It may be too little, too late for the industry, but conservation of stocks shouldn’t just be left to our fishermen if others continue to destroy stocks when there is an alternative."

Stevenson added: "There is another cause for concern. It appears that the impact of active sonar on human divers is also more severe than originally presented. The likelihood of panic behaviour in unalerted recreational divers, exposed to LFAS, has been recognised as a serious threat by British Navy doctors.

"The US Navy’s tests of LFAS on their own alerted personnel indicate that fairly strong aversive behaviour would be expected at exposures well below 145 decibels. Indeed, the navy has acknowledged that exposure to LFAS poses risks to recreational divers hundreds of miles from the LFAS source.

"Acoustic trauma and mortalities caused by sonar over vast areas of the marine environment is now an issue of major international controversy. There are existing alternative methods for underwater surveillance that are as effective as LFAS, and should be used in preference to these noise pollutants.

"It appears that more scientific evaluation is required urgently before we can ever allow the US and UK military to increasingly pollute the world’s marine environment with these devastating LFAS."

Finally, in yet another related development, calls have been made for a new international law to regulate marine sound pollution following a surge in the number of whale and dolphin strandings in the northwest of Scotland. The discovery of the corpse of a rare Sowerby Whale on a beach near Durness July brings to eight the number of dead cetaceans washed ashore along the Sutherland coastline since January 2003. The sharp rise in strandings has rekindled concerns that they are linked to extremely loud sonar equipment used by military vessels that regularly practice off the coast.

"In an average year we would expect two to come ashore,' said Bob Reid of the Veterinary Investigation Centre which examines the remains of any cetacean washed up along the northern coastline. But Reid's records at the Scottish Agricultural College in Inverness show that eight whales and dolphins have been washed ashore between Ullapool and Dounreay since early January, including two rare beaked whales which have previously been associated with beachings caused by low-frequency acoustic sonar being developed by the U.S. and U.K. navies.

The high incidence of whale deaths has pushed LFAS and aquatic noise pollution up the environmental agenda. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) is shortly to launch its report on noise and the marine environment in the UK calling for a full environmental impact assessment of military sonar and an international treaty banning its use.

Sonar, propellers, seismic surveys, sea-floor drilling, and low-frequency radio transmissions have all turned the oceans into a noisy place. There has been concern for some years now that man-made sounds are making it much harder for whales, dolphins and other sophisticated marine animals to communicate, navigate and even detect predators and prey.

Last year the British Royal Navy outraged environmental organisations by testing its own low frequency active sonar off the north of Scotland. The LFAS 2087 is in development and will be fitted to Type 23 frigates by 2006. According to a written answer from the Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram, a Royal Navy environmental impact assessment "indicated that the sonar has the potential to be harmful to marine mammals."

Compiled from the following sources:

CBS News, ~~ WRAL, ~~ KOMO TV (1), ~~ KOMO TV (2), ~~ Seattle Post-Intelligence (1), ~~ Seattle Post-Intelligence (2), ~~ Seattle Post-Intelligence (3), ~~ Seattle Post-Intelligence (4), ~~ Wired, ~~ The Scotsman, and Sunday Herald.