Sonar Unleashed

By Taffy Lee Williams,

In December 2008, after a decades-long battle between environmental groups and the US Navy, the US Supreme Court ruled that the need for training using powerful high-tech military sonar outweighed the impacts of sonar on marine life and even environmental laws.

In the final days of the Bush administration and despite the overwhelming evidence that sonar adversely impacts and even kills cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and a host of other marine species, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency in charge of enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, enacted new regulations that give wide berth for the use of sonar.

NMFS long-standing and troubling pattern of complicity with the navy is well known, and true to form, NMFS, recently authorized sonar use off the coast of Southern California and Hawaii. In addition, the same broad authority for sonar use was granted along the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico for the next five years. Environmental groups, such as the National Resources Defense Council, warn that the new regulations will expose millions of marine mammals to harm.

On February 10, 2009, a multi-national military exercise, Cobra 2009, commenced in the waters off Southeast Asia. Ten hours later more than 200 melon-headed whales herded themselves into the shallows near the Philippines. Three of the whales were found dead, with damage to the eardrums. It is a scenario that has been repeated dozens of times in the history of sonar exercises over the past four decades.

What is sonar and how does it affect marine life? An acoustic weapon with unimaginable power, active sonar generates ongoing pulses of sound energy at various frequencies, which are perpetuated through a body of water. Just as dolphins use echolocation to find object such as fish or items under the seabed, active sonar is used to locate objects, such as vessels or weapons, enabling humans to see through the darkness of the depths.

Rescuers examine one of several beaked whales that died during our sonar exercises off the Canary Islands in 2002 as published in the LA Times

Technically, the louder the decibel (dB) levels, the farther the sonar energy can travel. So powerful are these devices that a transmission in Alaskan waters can be heard in the Indian Ocean! Decibel levels, which are measured logarithmically, can exceed 240 dB. Typical building alarms sound at 105 dB, loud enough to hurt the ears and cause people to flee. Death in humans occurs at just 140 dB with exposure under one minute. Sonar’s power is not mitigated by the liquid medium through which it travels. Sound fails to attenuate, or lose power, in dense waters, so that the energy remains at deadly levels for hundreds and even thousands of miles.

In a variety of ways, sonar can kill. As these powerful body-shattering sound waves pass through living organisms swimming or floating in their path, a resonance effect occurs, causing air cavities or carapaces, such as the lungs, sinus, brains and hearing apparatus, to violently vibrate, crashing against adjacent tissue and bone. Implosions of internal organs have been confirmed during necropsies and are a signature of sonar-related whale mortalities.

Underwater sonar can also cause the bends, nitrogen super-saturation condition in the blood caused by a too rapid ascent to the surface, one typical response to a sonar-struck and panicking whale.

While agreeing to a need for sonar by our highest court is nothing to celebrate, the Supreme Court did rule that the Navy must now fully comply with the NEPA process of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for sonar training activities. In the past, sonar exercises took place in secrecy; the only evidence left behind was the mass stranded carcasses of whales and dolphins that happened to make it to shore, or the injuries to unfortunate divers in the area. Commercial fishing operators have complained that training areas are yielding poor catch, and protest the Navy’s presence as heartily as environmentalists. Their fury has compelled elected officials to complain to the Navy: “Not in my back yard!”

The Cherry Point Operating area off the coast of North Carolina is in line to receive hundreds of hours of sonar use, with marine mammals being impacted as many as 400,000 times each year. What are the current mitigation measures? The Navy is required to conduct onsite scanning for marine mammals – a ridiculous measure when you consider visibility is barely one mile on the open water but the sonar can travel hundreds of miles without losing power. Furthermore, visual surveys are impossible after dark or if the vessel is submerged.

Anticipating a legal victory, in late 2008, the Navy announced plans to expand its training range within the Washington State Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, the Quinault Underwater Training Range, from 48 square miles to a whopping 1,854 square miles. With an expected substantial barrage of mid-frequency sonar, exercises that destroy shorelines during mock beach assaults, and a variety of vehicles that can churn up the seabed, severe environmental impacts are expected. Predictably, the Navy is dismissing protests by concerned groups who cite destruction at other training areas.

Cetaceans are imperiled by global warming, the loss of oceanic “biota” (their food supply), pollution, bycatch, ship strikes, and even illegal whaling. In addition, whales face non-sonar acoustic hazards in the form of seismic exploration, oil and gas drilling and shipping. The seas are filling with noise, confusing cetaceans who depend on acute hearing skills for communication, feeding and navigation.

All of the great (baleen) whales are endangered or threatened, some, along with many toothed species, critically endangered. Species, like the white Ganges River dolphin, Southern California’s vaquita and the western gray whale are becoming extinct before our eyes, and we seem helpless to stop it. Local populations of many species have plummeted so that we are on the edge of a global cetacean catastrophe.

Human technology is a preventable assault. There are alternatives to active military sonar that will not compromise marine species, but allow us to follow the moral route: self-preservation while causing no harm. This is not the preferred path of the Navy.

The reality is that mitigation measures are a failure. In the Supreme Court settlement, new marine mammal research directed by the plaintiffs will be funded by the Navy and both sides must negotiate any future sonar disputes. A series of EIS’s will be prepared, but this will hardly stop the Navy from presenting it’s typical “non-detrimental finding” EIS, so characteristic of previous sonar reports.

The Navy has long admitted that sonar harms marine life, but accepts the mass stranding of whales, which are quantified only as the animals reach the shores and can be counted, as collateral damage.

When a March 2000, military sonar exercise in the Bahamas caused a total of 18 whales to strand, the Navy denied any responsibility. But acoustic monitoring devices in the channel confirmed the fleet’s presence as the whales stranded. In May 2003, 11 harbor porpoises beached along Haro Strait and killer whales huddled in fear while the USS Shoup conducted mid-frequency sonar testing in full view of nearby boaters, whale researchers, and that famous pod of resident orca. In July 2004, 200 melon-headed whales hit shallow waters of Hanalei Bay, Hawaii, during a sonar exercise. In January 2005, 34 whales stranded on the Outer Banks of North Carolina during offshore sonar training.

Over the US Navy’s decades of clandestine sonar testing, how many whale deaths escaped detection? Further, how can we calculate the occurrence of strandings against the rate of exercises? What can we expect as sonar exercises become “business as usual” and the navy escapes litigation? We brace ourselves for a future that fills our oceans with military sonar. Whales themselves can’t go to court to describe their suffering and fight this assault of acoustic madness, but thankfully there are many willing to make those extraordinary efforts to save whales.


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