Can Navy Sonar Hurt Whales?
Activists poised to block new device seen as harmful to marine mammals
A high-tech sonar system unveiled by the Navy could harm whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, environmentalists say.
The new sonar uses sound waves and microphones to detect submarines at distances 10 times farther away than standard sonar equipment. Environmentalists believe the noise could affect whale health and behaviors, such as migratory patterns and breeding.
Acknowledging the system could affect "small numbers" of marine mammals, the Navy has filed for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to use the technology for the next five years. If the system is approved, the Navy would have the right to "incidentally harass or harm marine species."
A decision by the Fisheries Service is expected within the next few weeks, according to agency spokeswoman Connie Barclay.
Military officials and environmental activists, meanwhile, are debating the risks involved with the new technology.
"It's virtually impossible to know what the baseline response behavior will be," said Joe Johnson, civilian project manager for the Navy's new sonar program.
The Navy's Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System, or SURTASS, has a string of underwater microphones that detect noise from submarines and other underwater hazards. The new system uses Low Frequency Active (LFA) enhancement, which broadcasts sounds so the Navy can listen to underwater echoes bouncing off vessels.
Activists worry the decibel levels will hurt marine life.
"(The Navy) said, 'We tested it and it's safe,' but they never tested at the full level," said Marsha Green, a professor with Albright University and a member of Ocean Mammal Institute. "I think they were clearly trying to deceive people."
Three tests of the new LFA sonar were conducted - all in the Pacific Ocean - as part of an environmental impact statement the Navy was required to file with the Fisheries Service.
Johnson said the typical decibel level whales will encounter should be between 130 and 150 but the permit would allow the Navy to use the equipment at 180 decibels, which is the point at which the Navy contends injury to whales could occur.
Peter Tyack, a biologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who participated in the testing, said they did not exceed 155 decibels for fear of what could happen to nearby whales.
"Since they are endangered species, we were very conservative in designing the experimental exposures," Tyack said.
When whales were exposed to decibel levels between 150 and 155, Tyack said, researchers saw only "temporary and not very worrisome changes in behavior."
The sonar wave is strongest at the source - reaching 240 decibels as it leaves the sonar boom - but will dissipate in the water as it travels away from the vessel.
The Navy plans to monitor the waters near the sonar vessels, making sure marine mammals are no closer than a kilometer, where the decibel level drops to 180, Johnson said.
"Animals can get hurt on an individual basis if they are very close," Johnson said. "The odds of there being an animal within a kilometer are slim to none."
"Effects that are lethal" The impact of sound waves can feel like a blunt force, similar to being hit in the head with a heavy object, said Green, the Albright professor. "Sound waves are pressure waves," she said. "Pressure can have physiological effects that are lethal."
But even lower decibel levels can harm marine life, according to Lanny Sinkin, an activist who opposes the Navy's use of the new sonar.
Sinkin said a sound wave could vibrate inside the head of a marine mammal, rupturing tissue and causing stranding or death.
The dangers of such a phenomenon, known as resonance, first came up after a mass stranding in the Bahamas of 17 marine mammal species in 2000. Six whales and one dolphin died.
According to the Navy, three whales showed signs of bleeding in their inner ears and one whale showed signs of bleeding around the brain. Military officials later acknowledged the most plausible cause for the strandings was midrange tactical sonar operating in the area.
Though it was midrange and not the new low-frequency sonar, experts began to look at how resonance affects marine life.
Resonance "basically rips them apart," said Bill Rossiter, president of Cetacean Society International and an outgoing Center for Coastal Studies director.
Sonar also could affect the level of nitrogen in the whale's blood, causing serious internal injuries, according to Sinkin
"You may or may not see a disruption of behaviors, but that does not mean there is no effect," said Sharon Young, a Cape Cod resident and field director for marine issues for the Humane Society of the United States.
During testing near Hawaii, Sinkin said, marine life exhibited several odd behaviors - hammerhead sharks schooled, dolphins lifted their heads out of the water and backed up toward shore and whales left the areas they typically inhabited.
In one case, a naturalist who had been in the ocean for about 45 minutes of the testing had difficulty walking and blurry vision after emerging from the water, Sinkin said.
"With our folks injured and the whales fleeing the test area, it became a huge issue," Sinkin said.
Lawsuits challenged Navy Although the Navy had already conducted testing of the new sonar years before, military officials agreed to seek a permit from the Fisheries Service after the Natural Resources Defense Council threatened a lawsuit in the mid-1990s. Part of the permit application required the Navy to file an environmental impact statement that detailed how the technology would work.
Environmental groups backed down from their threats once the Navy agreed to test the technology in California and Hawaii.
The Fisheries Service permit required the Navy to halt testing immediately if whales left the area.
Sinkin said when he and more than a dozen people reported the odd behaviors during the tests, the Navy refused to stop. He filed for an injunction to stop the testing. By the time it hit court, however, the Navy had stopped the testing.
Sinkin is ready to file another lawsuit if the Navy is granted its permit.
"We're awaiting a final decision from (the Fisheries Service), and if they grant the permit there is almost certainly going to be litigation," Sinkin said.
There are currently no plans to operate LFA sonar ships off California or in areas south of the equator, Johnson said. The critical habitat area for right whales just off Cape Cod will also be off limits.
But the Navy's environmental impact statement indicates small percentages of whales in the North Atlantic could be affected by the sonar.
Environmental exemption sought Meanwhile, a bill to exempt the Department of Defense from several environmental laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, is being discussed on Capitol Hill.
"It's very disturbing," said Peter Borelli, executive director of the Center for Coastal Studies. "I think (the military is) trying to see how far 9/11 carries them.'
The environmental provisions are part of a House bill that authorizes fiscal 2003 spending for the Department of Defense. A committee on Tuesday removed exemptions from Superfund and Clean Air acts, but other exemptions remained. The Armed Services Committee debated the bill yesterday.
The Cape's lawmakers are not encouraged by the measure.
"It's an attempt to undo a great deal of progress in a wholesale way," said Steve Schwadron, a senior aide for U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who represents the Cape and islands.
"We need to defend the nation - period," Schwadron said. "We just need to do that in a responsible fashion. There is no need to sacrifice the environmental protection aspects of this in order to ensure we have proper training."
When it comes to marine mammals the act makes it harder to file lawsuits, Schwadron said. It also changes definitions, making it harder to prove something is harassment, Young said.
"That's a pretty potent combination," Schwadron said. "The last thing we need is a whole statutory overhaul that releases everybody from their obligations."
If approved, the proposed legislation could clear the way for the sonar program.
"Without it, the Navy cannot proceed," Schwadron said. "With it, the Navy can get through this obstacle."
U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry are also monitoring progress of the legislation.
"They've tried to exempt environmental legislation before," said Kelly Benander, a spokeswoman for Kerry. "The question is, how do we make sure we strip out dangerous provisions from the bill?"
Kennedy, who is a member of the Armed Services Committee, has indicated he will oppose any attempt to thwart environmental laws.
"We're not going to support anything that is going to hurt the environment," Kennedy spokesman Mike Spahn said.
Whale populations in jeopardy Of the 11 species considered in the sonar environmental study, four are commonly found in Stellwagen Bank and all but one of those species are endangered.
The minke whale is considered an abundant species, and about 8.08 percent in the western North Atlantic could be affected.
The study also claims 7.12 percent of humpback, 1.77 percent of fin and 2.52 percent of right whales could be affected by the sonar.
With the right whale population hovering at about 320, researchers say the loss of even one is significant.
Last year an estimated $250,000 was spent trying to rescue one male right whale suffering from a life-threatening entanglement. Although the effort failed, it received national attention and highlighted the problems of entanglement, especially on a population with dwindling numbers.
With nearly 60 percent of right whales showing signs of entanglement, whale conservationists are leery of additional dangers.
"If the (Fisheries Service) can actually license fishing gear that kills whales, how can you actually take something omnipresent, like noise, and expect them to stop that?" asked Richard "Max" Strahan, an environmentalist.
The Navy initially planned to operate four vessels, but budget reductions have scaled back the program. One ship is ready now and another is in the finishing stages.
Johnson said depending on the conditions placed on the permit, the LFA sonar could be in the water within a few months.
The Fisheries Service can deny the permit, place limits on where the sonar can be used or approve the permit with no limitations.
Barclay, of the Fisheries Service, said there could be amendments to the application, which could further limit sonar use or otherwise alter the permit. Until a decision, however, there will be little comment on the permit, she said.
Some environmentalists vow to continue the fight no matter what the Fisheries Service decides.
"I think there is no way that NMFS has the courage to go against the Navy," Green said. "But there will be litigation."