Published March 3, 2014
Imagine that you are walking down a city street at night – suddenly an ear-splitting siren goes off and simultaneously you find yourself in pitch black darkness, so dark that you can’t see your hands in front of your face or find your companions. What would you do? Most likely, if you knew how you would run for where you thought you could find light to see, and away from the noise.
Similarly, when loud noise from sonar or seismic surveys suddenly goes off, whales and dolphins have no ability to “see” since their sonar is useless, so they panic and head for the surface – often separated from pod members and calves. And sometimes they destroy their hearing apparatus and body tissues in the process.
A Navy destroyer, the USS Shoup, was using active sonar as part of an exercise in Haro Strait, generating pulses of 140 decibels or more. That’s as loud as standing near a fighter jet during take-off.
In the following days, at least 10 harbor porpoises were found dead in the area, some with blood coming from their heads. Some frozen bodies were sent for analysis, but it couldn’t be conclusively determined if the sonar contributed to the deaths.
For Ken Balcomb, it felt like deja vu. Three years earlier, he’d studied a mass stranding of dolphins following a Navy sonar exercise in the Bahamas. Balcomb says he suspected the intense pressure of the sonar pulses played a role.
Balcomb explained, “So I collected and froze heads and took them to Harvard Medical School and we CAT scanned them and showed they had hemorrhagic damage in the brain and ears.” (OPR, see below).
While the event involving J-pod of the Southern Resident orcas occurred a few years ago and the Navy no longer uses this type of sonar when the orcas are present in the Salish Sea, Navy exercises using loud sonar and explosives still go on anywhere in the ocean where safeguards are not in place. In spite of the best available science that shows the negative impact of these activities on marine life, in December the National Marine Fisheries Service approved the Navy’s request for a permit that appears to be in violation of the law.
At the end of February 2014, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Navy. “Court documents can be found here, where it is stated:
In authorizing the Navy’s training and testing activities, the Service and the
Navy have committed these and other specific violations of the Marine Mammal
Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the
Administrative Procedure Act.
The lawsuit clearly says that the NRDC does not seek to stop the military from essential practice, but instead want to see that strong mitigation measures are implemented.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has been in court for several years, trying to force the government to put stricter limits on the Navy’s use of sonar in coastal waters where whales are present. Smith points to documents in which the Navy concedes that, despite its efforts to avoid harm, it expects to impact marine mammals hundreds of thousands of times over the five-year permit period. He says that shows the effect of the Navy’s safety measures is limited.
Smith explained, “And that limitation is, it only really works to limit the most serious harm.”
Smith says the number of whales and other marine mammals outright killed or permanently deafened may be decreased by the lookouts and other Navy precautions, but other impacts that damage the animals’ ability to feed or reproduce won’t.
Smith said, “Temporary hearing loss will continue, behavioral disruption will continue, and their lookout regime doesn’t do anything to limit that.”
Smith says the Navy should be restricted from using sonar during times of the year when seasonal migrations bring concentrations of whales into coastal waters.
The Navy is holding a series of public meetings on the environmental impact statement for the Northwest Training and Testing Area. Meetings will be held in communities from Oak Harbor, Washington to Fort Bragg California.
Although the public meetings were few and far between (remaining meetings are listed below), you can still express your thoughts. Please remember to use logical and provable points, and make comments here – the deadline for comment is March 25.
(From Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPR)- full audio is below.
REMAINING PUBLIC MEETINGS (Oregon and California)
Open House Information Sessions: 5-8 p.m. Navy Presentation: 6:30 p.m.
Monday, March 3, 2014 Astoria High School Student Commons, 1001 W. Marine Drive Astoria, OR
Tuesday, March 4, 2014, Isaac Newton Magnet School Gym 825 NE 7th St., Newport, OR
Thursday, March 6, 2014, Red Lion Hotel Redwood Ballroom, 1929 4th St.Eureka, CA
Friday, March 7, 2014, Redwood Coast Senior Center West Room, 490 N. Harold St., Fort Bragg, CA