The War on Whales
Navy sonar and explosive tests likely to be deadly or extremely harmful to all marine mammals within hearing range
By John Grula 04/16/2014
When we last examined the US Navy’s war against whales almost exactly one year ago, things were looking very grim indeed for whales and other marine mammals. Now the situation has gone from bad to worse.
The Navy wants to pursue a five-year plan starting this year to conduct additional anti-submarine war exercises off the coasts of Southern California and Hawaii. These war games, according to the Los Angeles Times, are scheduled to include almost 60,000 hours of high-intensity sonar broadcasts and the detonation of more than 250,000 explosives.
The ocean waters in which the Navy wants to launch its brutal barrage are home to more than 35 species of whales and dolphins, including the endangered Blue Whale. All of these marine mammals are highly acoustical and sensitive to the Navy’s colossal noise machine.
The Navy sonar systems work like acoustic floodlights, sending out sound waves through ocean waters for tens or even hundreds of miles to locate large objects. But they can be extremely loud. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, even one sonar loudspeaker can be as loud as a twin-engine fighter jet at takeoff.
Until recently, the scientific evidence for the heavy toll the Navy’s deadly cacophony wreaks on marine mammals has been less than solid, but that changed recently when a federal agency, the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), released an updated technical guidance document that was 10 years in the making.
The NMFS’s own analysis estimates the Navy’s war games will result in 155 marine mammal deaths, more than 2,000 permanent injuries, and about 9.6 million cases of temporary hearing loss, the Times reported. The NMFS’s new guidelines also emphasize the importance of assessing an animal’s cumulative exposure to earsplitting noise as well as the impact of single noise events, reports Science magazine.
Given that the Navy wants to conduct its war games over five years, the cumulative effect of ongoing and extremely loud sonar broadcasts and explosions will almost certainly be very harmful to all the marine mammals within hearing range.
In the recent past, the Times has reported that even the Navy admits its activities could kill as many as 130 marine mammals and cause hearing loss in 1,600 others. However, many scientists and environmentalists say the Navy’s numbers are gross underestimates. The data recently provided by the NMFS would appear to vindicate the scientists and environmentalists.
Marine mammals such as cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises and their kin) are highly intelligent creatures that depend on their acute sense of hearing for vital life functions, such as communication, navigation, feeding and avoiding predators. Loss of hearing for a cetacean is effectively a death sentence — a deaf whale is a dead whale.
Scientific evidence that high-intensity sonar can fatally harm cetaceans continues to accumulate. The Canary Islands off the coast of Northwest Africa used to be a hot spot for mass beach strandings of cetaceans (which nearly always results in the death of all the beached animals). But ever since the Spanish government imposed a moratorium on naval sonar operations around these islands in 2004, Nature magazine has reported that the mass beach strandings ended.
But here’s the clincher: All this killing and injuring of marine mammals is completely unnecessary. By putting sensitive cetacean habitat off-limits to testing and training operations, the Navy could greatly reduce its deadly impact on marine mammal populations that are already endangered. And our national security would not be jeopardized even one iota.
The environmental community is not taking the Navy’s planned onslaught of marine mammals without putting up some stiff resistance. On Jan. 27 of this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit in federal court against both the Navy and the NMFS (which has given the Navy permission to proceed with its brutal assault) on behalf of itself and four other environmental organizations. A similar suit was filed a week earlier in Hawaii by Earthjustice, the Times reported, on behalf of five other environmental groups.
Do the environmentalists have a chance against the Navy? Apparently so. In another recent court battle with the Navy, a federal judge sided with the NRDC and ordered the NMFS to reevaluate its plans for allowing naval operations that threatened whales in the Pacific Northwest.
For more information on this issue and the activities of the NRDC, visit nrdc.org/wildlife/marine/sonar.asp and the NRDC’s Jan. 27 press release that reports its lawsuit against the Navy and the NMFS nrdc.org/media/2014/140127.asp. Of course, donations can always be made online.
If you would like to vent your spleen about this topic, send Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus a letter at this address: Office of the Secretary of the Navy, 2000 Navy Pentagon, Washington, DC, 20350-2000. You can also leave a comment online at navy.mil/submit/contacts.asp.
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.