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Federal judge halts sonar testing that environmentalists say disorients migrating gray whales


The Associated Press

9th January 2003 - SAN FRANCISCO

In response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, a federal judge blocked scientists from studying the impact of a newly developed form of sonar on migrating gray whales.

Environmentalists say the high-frequency sonar could disorient whales and separate calves from their mothers during their migration.

The testing by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Falmouth, Mass., and Scientific Solutions Inc. of Nashua, N.H., was set to begin Wednesday a mile off the central California coast near San Luis Obispo during the whales' southward migratory season.

The National Marine Fisheries Service approved the experiments last year.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti set a new hearing for Jan. 17, when he is expected to decide whether to make Wednesday's temporary order permanent or allow the three weeks of testing to begin.

"How do we know it's doing any damage to the whales?" Conti asked.

It was the third time in as many months that a San Francisco federal judge has halted underwater sound testing amid concerns over marine life.

The whale-finding sonar that was to be tested could be used to keep vessels from ramming the sea creatures. Also, oil explorers who detonate undersea explosives could deploy the sonar to detect if whales are nearby.

"The idea that it would cause them harm is a nonsensical thing," Maureen Rudolph, a Justice Department attorney, argued on behalf of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In court briefs, she told Conti the research "is intended to benefit whales."

The Channel Islands Animal Protection Association, however, said the whales' numbers are shrinking and therefore they should be left alone.

"This is deliberately adding stress into their environment that they don't need," environmental attorney Lanny Sinkin told the court.

Scientific Solutions declined comment.

"The test was another aspect of our efforts to understand what they hear and how they behave in reaction to natural and human-induced sounds," said Shelley Dawicki, spokeswoman for the Oceanographic Institution.

The testing, which was to occur during the peak of the whales' migration, could be put on hold until next year if the judge allows it to proceed, Rudolph said.

In October, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered the National Science Foundation to stop firing high-intensity sonic blasts into the Gulf of California because they harm whales.

And in November, the U.S. Navy agreed to temporarily scale back the testing of a new sonar system designed to detect enemy submarines after a federal magistrate halted the project.

The judge said a similar Navy sonar may have caused at least 16 whales and two dolphins to beach themselves recently on islands in the Bahamas. Eight whales died and scientists found haemorrhaging around their brains and ear bones, injuries consistent with exposure to loud noise.