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Judge Blocks Research Project to Track Whales


24th January 2003

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday blocked a sonar research project on gray whales that environmental groups charged would have disoriented the giant mammals as they migrated along the California coast.
The decision to halt the project designed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service marked the third time in recent months a California federal judge has barred such testing because of worries over marine life.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti, who had previously delayed the start of testing, ruled that the researchers had not followed the proper environmental review procedures to receive the permit needed to carry out the project.

The three-week experiment would have tested whether sonar could prevent whales from colliding with ships or from being injured in underwater demolition. Researchers intended to broadcast high-frequency sound pulses toward gray whales migrating south along the California coast.

But environmentalists, who said only a handful of the mammals bump into ships each year, argued that the sound pulses interfered with communication between female whales and their calves and could endanger the whales by sending them off course.

"This is huge," said Sue Arnold, whose Australians for Animals environmental group instigated the lawsuit to block the project. "The experiment would have affected calves communicating with their mothers."

Environmental groups say the whales, which are found in the Western Pacific, face a survival crisis as their population has dropped to an estimated 17,000 in 2002 from about 26,000 in 1998 -- an alarming 35 percent drop in a four-year period.

Possible causes include global warming which has hit the whales' food supply, noise from oil and gas exploration activities and getting caught in nets, according to the environmental groups.

The ruling also marks the third recent ruling by a San Francisco-based federal judge to block sonar testing in California coastal waters. Both of the previous cases were linked to mass whale deaths.

In October, a judge blocked a plan by the U.S. Navy -- also approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service -- to test a new high-intensity sonar for detecting enemy submarines. The plan was later scaled back in an agreement reached by the Navy and four environmental groups that sued to stop the testing.

In a separate case in October, a federal judge ordered the National Science Foundation to stop firing loud sonic blasts from air guns in the Gulf of California.