Whales at Risk From New U.S. Navy Sonar Range, Activists Say

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
November 3, 2005
The U.S. Navy is moving ahead with plans to build an undersea warfare
training range on the U.S. East Coast despite fierce opposition from
conservation and animal welfare organizations.

Groups opposed to the military project say endangered North Atlantic right whales, dolphins, and sea turtles could potentially be injured or killed from powerful sonar blasts emitted during training exercises.

"Protecting whales and preserving national security are not mutually exclusive," said Fred O'Regan, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

An undersea sonar training range already exists off the coast of Hawaii. But the Navy said another one is needed to train its Atlantic fleet because of the growing threat posed by ultra-quiet diesel submarines.

The Navy has identified three possible new training range sites, each about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coasts of North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida.

Last week the Navy published a draft environmental impact report. Officials will hold public hearings about the ranges this month near each of the proposed sites.

A final decision on whether to build the 98-million-U.S.-dollar range and its exact location is scheduled for August 2006.

Noise Pollution?

About 160 six-hour training exercises—some held simultaneously—would take place each year at the new range, said Navy spokesperson Jim Brantley.

The proposed range would encompass about 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of ocean. It would be outfitted with 300 undersea acoustic devices called nodes.

The nodes are connected by cable to each other and to a facility on land where the collected data is used to evaluate training performance.

Mid-frequency sonar used during training exercises can emit continuous sound well above 235 decibels—an intensity roughly comparable to a rocket blastoff, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a conservation nonprofit group.

Experts say that's a problem for marine mammals and other aquatic animals. Sound is their primary means of learning about their environment, communicating, and navigating.

"Military sonar needlessly threatens whole populations of whales and other marine animals," said Joel Reynolds, an attorney for NRDC. "The Navy refuses to take basic precautions that could spare these majestic creatures."

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, along with several animal welfare and environmental groups, sued the Navy last week, citing harm to whales caused by mid-frequency sonar.

The technology is associated with strandings—when marine animals swim or float onto shore and become beached or stuck in shallow water.

Whale strandings have occurred for decades for a variety of reasons.

In 2000 17 whales from three species beached themselves in the Bahamas after Navy ships conducted mid-range sonar exercises. Of those stranded, seven animals died.

A federal investigation concluded sonar was the most likely cause of the whales' stranding.

Adding to the controversy, the military's preferred training site in North Carolina is near an area where a mass whale stranding took place in January, not long after the Navy conducted sonar exercises in the region.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency that protects marine mammals, is investigating the cause of the most recent stranding.

Donna Wieting of the Fisheries Service said the agency aimed to complete the investigation this summer but was delayed in part by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Results are expected in January 2006.

Underwater Racket

Brantley, the Navy spokesperson, said precautions would be taken to protect mammals at the newly proposed range. Steps would include training personnel to recognize marine species and conducting visual surveys before and during exercises.

If animals are seen within 350 yards (320 meters) of a vessel, he said, active sonar transmission levels would be reduced.

"Marine mammals would have to be very close to the sonar source to experience physical harm or injury," Brantley said.

Some experts believe sonar is a nonissue given the abundance of man-made noises filling the world's seas.

Power boats, oil tankers, offshore drilling, and seismic surveys all contribute to the acoustic traffic jam.

Arthur Popper co-directs the Center for Comparative and Evolutionary Biology of Hearing at the University of Maryland.

"The impact on fish or marine mammals from sonar is trivial compared to the sounds produced on a much more global scale by the general increase of human activity in the oceans," Popper said. "It's almost a phony issue."

The acoustic biologist recently studied the effect of low-frequency sonar on several fish species likely to be exposed to sound waves in their natural environment.

The result showed fish experienced short-term hearing loss, he said, but sustained no long-term damage.

The Navy funded Popper's study, but the scientist is quick to assert that he was not pressured by the military to produce favorable test results. He plans to publish the study sometime next year.

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