New U.S. Defense Act Bad for Whales, Eco-Groups Say

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic On Assignment
November 26, 2003
A defense bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush this week
may have ominous echoes undersea.

The National Defense Authorization Act contains a rider that, environmentalists say, compromises the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Among other things, the MMPA regulates navy testing of explosives and sonar.

A backdrop to the bill is a continuing debate among marine scientists about the nature of the threat of military testing.

Under the new law, "the Secretary of Defense, after conferring with the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of the Interior, or both, may exempt any action or category of actions undertaken by the Department of Defense or its components from compliance with any requirements of this Act, if the Secretary determines that it is necessary for national defense."

A Pentagon spokesperson elaborates. "The exemption is a release valve for true emergencies. It's not a blank check," said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Cappy Surette. "We operate on the oceans, and we take our responsibilities with protecting both our nation and its natural resources seriously."

Yet environmentalists fear the consequences of the new law. "It's the greatest single rollback of marine mammal protection in this country in the last 30 years," said Michael Jasny, a lawyer for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, who specializes in the marine mammal program.

Navy Explosive and Sonar Testing

The MMPA, Jasny added, "used to authorize navy exercises only if a small number of animals in limited areas would be injured or killed. Now those provisions are gone."

Environmentalists focus on two military testing exercises that threaten marine animals: explosives and mid-range tactical sonar to detect mines and submarines.

U.S. Navy explosives testing has been especially controversial in the Gulf of Maine near the Brunswick Air Station, a critical habitat for the endangered right whale. "Live ammunition bombing drills run during the whales' winter migration clearly risks injuring or killing these animals," said Sharon Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Tactical sonar, used by navies worldwide, may affect creatures that navigate or communicate acoustically.

"Sonar is heavily correlated with whale strandings both in time and space. That much is clear," said Darlene Ketten, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who studies hearing in marine mammals. "Exactly how the sonar is affecting these animals is another question."

Reports from around the world say that whales have stranded themselves within miles and hours of navy vessels testing mid-frequency anti-submarine sonar.

Scientists can only offer theories about the impact of tactical sonar. Fish-finding sonars are more prevalent worldwide, but, by contrast, "they're generally at a higher frequency, which doesn't carry as far in water as mid-frequency sounds," said Christopher Clark, director of the bioacoustics research program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who has studied whale communication for 30 years.

Beached Whales and Hemorrhaging Ears

In one stranding incident near the Canary Islands last year, "If you look at where the ships were operating, relative to the whales, it looks like the animals got herded out of the water and driven onto the beach by the sound," Clark said.

"Why the sound terrified them, we don't know. But I've listened to some of these anti-sub sonars and they have a similar effect to the sound of a killer whale. Perhaps the animals fled what they perceived as the threat of a natural predator."

Another possibility is that "the sound causes vibration in [the animals'] ears that leads to hemorrhaging," said Ken Balcomb, a senior researcher at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.

Scientists also are aware of the tradeoffs between the environment and a competitive military.

"I think there needs to be oversight of military training, that's clear—but we have to consider what happens to our military if they don't train with these sonars," said Ketten.

"Tactical sonar is essential for national defense—that's not in question," Balcomb said. "The issue is when and where you test it."

Scientists agree on sonar's value for research purposes.

"Sound waves are our most important tool for mapping and exploring the ocean," Ketten said. "But more needs to be done to figure out how to use this technology responsibly."

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