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Navy admits using sonar in strait

15th May 2003

The Olympian


SEATTLE -- The Navy acknowledged a guided-missile destroyer was using powerful, mid-frequency sonar on May 5 as it traveled through the Haro Strait to Vancouver Island -- at the same time that some whale watchers reported orcas and porpoises fleeing the area.
The Everett-based USS Shoup was using its tactical sonar as part of a quarterly training exercise to search for and avoid submarines, mines and other submerged objects, said spokeswoman Cmdr. Karen Sellers.

"Neither visual lookouts nor the ship's instruments detected the presence of marine mammals in the immediate area," she said in a statement Tuesday.

The sonar, called SQS-53C, is widely used by Navy ships, Sellers said.

Tom McMillen, a whale-watch operator who owns Salish Sea Charters, said he saw about 20 orcas leaving the area, looking distressed. And as many as 100 porpoises leapt through the water, heading away from the sound, he said.

The Navy ended the sonar sweep when Canadian authorities reported complaints from small-boat operators, Sellers said, but they made no mention of marine mammals.

Sellers declined to comment on any connection between the sonar and the behavior of the orcas and porpoises.

But Michael Jasney, a policy analyst with the National Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles, said SQS-53C is the same type of sonar that has caused strandings of marine mammals elsewhere.

It's unclear what about the mid-range sonar affects cetaceans, he said, but "there have been strandings all over the world caused by Navy sonar."

The Navy maintains there's no evidence to suggest a link between strandings and the sonar, Sellers said, and it "remains committed to being a good steward of the environment."

Use of Navy sonar has come under close scrutiny since March 2000, when at least 16 whales and two dolphins beached themselves on an island in the Bahamas. Eight whales died, and scientists found hemorrhaging around their brains and ear bones, injuries consistent with exposure to loud noise.

In that case and a similar incident in the Canary Islands off northwest Africa last year, Navy ships were present and using SQS-53C sonar.

In Washington, D.C., the Bush administration is seeking to exempt the Department of Defense from five federal laws protecting wildlife and the environment: the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and two laws governing cleanup of toxic waste.

The House Resources Committee passed the bill last week. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., voted against it.

"We believe we can have both a strong Navy and strong orca population," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Tuesday, two harbor porpoises were found dead on Whidbey Island, the Whidbey Island Marine Mammal Stranding Network said. In one, bleeding was seen around the blowhole and an eye.

"It is not known at this time if the deaths are related to the sonar exercises," the group said in a statement.