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Royal Navy 'secretly' testing sonar blamed for mass deaths of whales


10th November 2002

Low-frequency device was banned by US courts but is now being used by UK off Kyle of Lochalsh

By Torcuil Crichton

A high-powered military sonar, banned by the US courts because it can have potentially fatal effects on whales, is being tested by the Royal Navy in Scottish waters.

The tests are being carried out without the permission of the statutory environmental agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which has now demanded a meeting with the navy to discuss the issue. A spokesman said: 'We have previously been assured that neither the Royal Navy nor other Nato forces use Low Frequency Active (LFA) sonar during training in Scottish waters, and we're unaware of any testing being carried out off the coast of Scotland.'

But the LFA sonar tested at the Royal Navy's British Underwater Testing and Evaluation Centre (Butec) at the Kyle of Lochalsh, near Skye, has been blamed for disturbing whales and causing internal bleeding and disorientation.

A series of mass strandings of whales coinciding with military exercises across the world's oceans has led to legal action in the US and calls by British environmentalists to ban the use of the powerful sonar device, which emits sounds loud enough to be heard hundreds of miles away across the ocean. UK environmentalists are ready to follow the lead of US campaigners by taking the government to court to enforce a ban on testing in Britain.

Sonar systems are used to detect submarines, but new technology means that the signals they emit are now millions of times louder than older versions.
Evidence linking whale deaths to military activity is increasing.

Last August 17 whales of various species beached and died on the Canary Islands -- the fourth mass whale strandings in the islands in the last 20 years. Each one of the incidents coincided with Nato naval exercises around the islands.

In the summer of 2000 another 17 whales beached in the Bahamas just after a fleet of US destroyers had passed close by. Animal pathologists found the mammals had suffered internal bleeding in the ears and the brain. Whatever caused their death also caused great pain and distress.

The US version of the LFA system emits a sound that can produce 160 decibels at a range of 160 km, 50 times louder than the US Navy's own safe-sound limit for human divers. After it emerged that the US navy was testing the LFA around the American coastline, claiming its effects did not have 'significant biological impact' on the breeding or migration of whales, the environmental lobby went to law.

The environmentalists said US Navy tests exposed whales to 150 decibels and then set a safe limit of 180 decibels -- which is 1000 times louder. Last week a federal judge in California agreed with them and banned the use of LFA until the military and the marine scientists could agree on geographical limits.

'We sincerely believe that LFA sonar will damage the marine environment,' said Naomi Rose of the Humane Society in Washington. 'Its low-frequency ping can last 100 seconds, can travel hundreds of miles, and harass and displace whales from their feeding and breeding grounds.'

Tests on the British system have been carried out at the Butec base, which sits on the rocks at Kyle of Lochalsh in the shadow of the Skye bridge. Basically an at-sea laboratory for torpedo and sub marine development, the Butec test range covers a huge area of sea stretching from the base north through the Sound of Raasay.
The frequent military activity proves a headache for local fishermen, who are routinely excluded from the range -- but the base, a collection of inconspicuous brown buildings on the edge of Kyle, provides dozens of high-quality jobs in the area.
'We take our responsibility to the environment very seriously,' said an MoD spokeswoman. 'We use the best available scientific advice to minimise our impact on the environment.'

Because of security implications, that advice is not being shared with the marine research community -- but the MoD itself admits that the tests, carried out by civilian contractors, found that 'low-frequency active sonar has an adverse effect on the marine environment'.

Whale-watching on Scotland's west coast is now a multimillion- pound business, and if there are no mammals to watch the economic cost for tourist operators could be considerable.

On the initiative of an operator of a local whale-watching boat, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust began correlating whale sightings to the regular naval exercises that take place off the west coast of Scotland.

'The boats always noticed a two-week lull in cetacean sightings around the time of the exercises,' said Chris Parsons, who has been on Mull collecting data on sea mammals for more than a decade. 'We looked at the figures and there was a decline in numbers in the aftermath of an exercise.'

In Britain the MoD is subject to all the wildlife legislation in the book unless it is given specific exemptions. None has been applied for LFA.

'Under EU law it is illegal to harm or harass cetaceans, such as whales,' says Parsons.
'Until it can be proved that these sonars do not cause disturbance, injury or death to cetaceans, there ought to be a moratorium on their use. Otherwise the Royal Navy could be breaking the law.'