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Puget Sound porpoise deaths probed

16th May 2003

By Brian Kelly
Herald Writer –
© Herald net

NAVAL STATION EVERETT -- It could be a month before scientists will be able to determine if sonar from the Everett-based destroyer USS Shoup was a factor in the deaths of porpoises found stranded throughout Puget Sound in recent weeks.

Six harbor porpoises have been recovered, and the heads of two and the carcass of a third are at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A necropsy, an examination similar to an autopsy but on an animal, will be conducted on each porpoise, but no schedule has yet been set for the studies, Gorman said.

"We have a little bit of luxury regarding time, because the collected animals are frozen. So we don't have to get to them instantly," he said.

Results from the studies should be finished about three to four weeks after the necropsies are completed.

All told, 10 porpoises have been reported stranded since the start of the month, soon after the Shoup was seen passing through Haro Strait between Vancouver Island and San Juan Island on May 5.

Whale researchers in the area that morning and the crews and tourists on nearby whale-watching boats reported hearing pings from the ship's sonar, then seeing orcas, porpoises and a minke whale quickly leave the area in a sort of undersea stampede.

A Navy spokeswoman earlier this week said the Shoup had been in Haro Strait on May 5 and had been using its midrange tactical sonar -- called AN/SQS-53C -- for training to detect submarines and mines.

The Navy's marine mammal experts are reviewing information from the Shoup's activities that day, said Navy Cmdr. Karen Sellers of Navy Region Northwest. They will then consult with the appropriate agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Shoup is one of the Navy's newest warships, a guided missile destroyer that has been based at Naval Station Everett since its commissioning in Seattle in June 2002.

The Navy has used AN/SQS-53C sonar since the 1950s, Sellers said.

Tom McMillen, the owner of Salish Sea Charters, gives whale-watching tours out of Snug Harbor Marina on San Juan Island. He recalled hearing the Shoup's sonar over his hyrdophone before he could even see the ship the morning of May 5.

McMillen had taken about a dozen whale watchers on his 40-foot to Eagle Point so they could see orcas feed on salmon near the southwest tip of San Juan Island. He had hooked his hydrophone to a guitar amplifier on the boat's deck so passengers could hear the squeals and whistles of the killer whales nearby.

Soon, the sound of a shrill whistle could be heard.

"It started getting really, really loud," McMillen said, recalling how he had to turn down and then shut off the amplifier.

"I could see the speakers jumping," he said. "I finally had to shut if off, I couldn't handle it.

"I don't know what it sounded like underwater."

The sight of porpoises washing ashore isn't unusual at this time of year. Roughly six or so stranded harbor porpoises are brought in for examination every spring to the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, said Richard Osborne, research director at the museum.

The cause of death usually varies, from old age to complications in pregnancy to other factors.

Three dead porpoises have been taken to the whale museum in recent weeks, and the heads of those mammals will be removed on May 20 and sent to the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.

Scientists say it's too soon to link the Shoup's sonar to the porpoise deaths. But McMillen said he would like to see the Navy take additional precautions to help prevent damage to sea life.

The Navy could check with boat operators to see if whales or other marine mammals are present before they turn on their sonar, he said.

"I know we just got out of a war and there's terrorism going on," McMillen said. "There's a lot of sea life in this area that could be harmed."

Reporter Brian Kelly: 425-339-3422 or