When word came my way that the Navy had scheduled a meeting with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (DOA) to gain permission to bring dolphins to Hawaii for training – and that the dolphins would be fitted with “anti-forage” devices while on exercises in the open ocean – I couldn’t not go. My interest in the military use of dolphins spans decades.
The familiar conflicts tumbled in the back of my mind as I navigated to the meeting – we need the Navy, and the Navy needs effective tools to do their job. The problem, of course, is that dolphins aren’t tools, but until they have an effective replacement that is exactly how the Navy views the marine mammals in their program.
While long ago and of short duration, my experience training dolphins altered the course of my life and in less than a year I had gone from having the dream of communicating with dolphins to reconciling to the fact that communication with dolphins would be one of the worst things that could happen to them. The conflict between my passion for whales and dolphins and what I know is done in the name of research still drives me to search for depth and meaning in what dolphins are required to do in captivity, offset by the knowledge that our military strives to keep us safe.
I had planned to quietly observe and record the proceedings and anticipated that DOA would fully align with the Navy’s request. But that is not exactly how it went.
The DOA Board were to a person professional, listened to testimony by the animal rights people with equal respect as they gave the individual who presented the Navy’s case, and showed patience and warmth in handling the discussion. It didn’t seem to matter that they were constrained to consider only the material that is directly relevant to the permit request, they listened with empathy to what people had to say about dolphin rights.
Navy Dolphins Will Receive Training in Hawaii from Wikiwhale on Vimeo.
The Navy scientist who participated via phone didn’t just dial-up, he was dialed-in and that was probably the most significant thing I took away – while far from transparent, it wasn’t quite the brick wall response nor the dancing around the point tactics that we have come to expect from both military and industrial spokespersons.
That said, it remains to be seen how forthcoming the Navy will be when something goes wrong, as it did in 2011 in California (from This Dolphin Detonation Event Was Brought to You by the U.S. Navy):
On 4 March 2011, ‘mine counter-measure training’ was conducted on the ocean [near San Diego] A single time-delayed C4 block demolition charge …was detonated on the sandy ocean floor at a depth of [48 feet], … approximately 0.5-0.75 nautical miles from shore. At 5 minutes prior to the detonation, a group of 100-150 long-beaked common dolphins was observed entering the 640-[yard] mitigation zone by safety observers.
Options to retrieve the charge via divers or from the surface to stop the detonation were considered. However, the short time interval to detonation made this too risky for personnel. An effort to discourage the dolphins from entering the area by placing a boat between the detonation site and the school of dolphins was unsuccessful.
One minute after the detonation, three dolphins were observed motionless at the surface. The rest of the school continued to travel in the same direction as it had been prior to the detonation. The Navy recovered the three animals and transferred them to the local stranding network for necropsy. An additional long-beaked common dolphin stranded dead approximately [42 miles] north of the detonation site, 3 days later.
All four dolphins sustained typical mammalian primary blast injuries.
In 2012 a young orca was found on an Oregon beach, killed by blunt force trauma. Since the Navy regularly bombs in the marine sanctuary where these endangered whales live, the finger of blame pointed directly at them.
At first the Navy was silent, then denied any involvement, then finally they held a series of town hall meetings. I attended the meeting in Friday Harbor, WA, and was similarly impressed with the Navy’s ability to be simultaneously forthcoming and obtuse:
They did dodge some questions, particularly those that involved international cooperation (“Are they constrained by U.S. law when operating with Canadian military in Canadian waters?” Unclear answer) or about past bombing in the Sanctuary (first claiming that the Navy had no records going back 15 years, then qualifying that to ‘not precise records’). But for the most part they were impressively sincere in their concern about the possible consequences of their activities. (Seattle PI).
Here in Hawaiian waters Navy sonar has been linked to the stranding and deaths of whales, and the Navy has come up with a recipe for acceptable deaths (NBC News Reports 27 Million Marine Mammals May Be Impacted By Navy Practice – Comment Period Extended).
The Navy estimates that its activities could inadvertently kill 186 whales and dolphins off the East Coast and 155 off Hawaii and Southern California, mostly from explosives.
It calculates more than 11,000 serious injuries off the East Coast and 2,000 off Hawaii and Southern California, along with nearly 2 million minor injuries, such as temporary hearing loss, off each coast. It also predicts marine mammals might change their behavior — such as swimming in a different direction — in 27 million instances.
While the Navy has brought dolphins over to Hawaii for training in the past, this is the first year that the DOA didn’t just rubber-stamp the request, and public opinion was clearly against it.
Local animal rights representatives Dr. Jim Anthony, Mimi Forsyth, and Cathy Goeggel spoke passionately about the use of dolphins as weapons as well as questioning the use of the anti-foraging devices. (These devices strap the dolphins mouths so that only very small fish can be eaten…if a dolphin escapes it will just starve or possibly eat one of the toxic reef fishes. The Navy spokesman emphasized that larger fish could not be taken, probably in order to address one of the concerns that the DOA must address (how might local fish populations be affected)).
Ultimately the Board voted 5 – 2 to allow the Navy to bring the dolphins to Oahu (remember though, the Board could only consider whether or not the Navy’s intentions matched what they had stated – not whether or not it was ethically right to do so). They put constraints on the time frame in which the Navy could operate, and asked probing questions.
What this means to you is that although this process is frustrating for those of us who care deeply about the ocean environment and the animals that live there, without public awareness the Navy would have less motivation to find alternatives to using and killing dolphins and whales in keeping us safe, and public opinion is valuable.