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Sounding Off Over Sonar Risk BY JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU
Humpback whales, like this cow-calf pair and escort in the waters off Hawaii, migrate to feed in the plankton-rich waters of the Santa Barbara Channel. The US Navy’s plan to continue to conduct high intensity sonar exercises from Southern California to Baja, puts this protected species at risk. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.
Imagine this scenario: A team of divers drops into the cool bluegreen waters off Southern California’s Santa Barbara Island. Nearby, a pod of common dolphins chase a school of baitfish. Suddenly the dolphins begin emitting unusual vocalizations and quickly leave the area. Simultaneously, the divers sense loud sounds underwater. The sound vibrations are so strong that within minutes, they begin to feel dizzy and ill. The team ends the dive after only a half hour. Back on the dive vessel, they scan the horizon for any signs of what could have caused the intense sounds that made them feel so sick. It’s not until the following day they learn from news reports that the Navy was conducting sonar exercises some 20 miles away. 10
While this account takes some literary license, the main elements – the U.S. Navy’s use of high-intensity sonar, marine mammals, divers, and the location in the Santa Barbara Channel – are real. Because the scenario could become a reality for marine mammals and humans alike bold action is being taken by organizations and individuals in a position to make a difference in the hope of putting a halt to such testing. Two separate lawsuits were filed March 22 against the U.S. Navy’s use of high-powered sonar for military training exercises in California waters from Santa Barbara to Baja, Mexico. The California Coastal Commission and a coalition of environmental organizations represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC): Ocean Futures Society, myself as an individual citizen, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cetacean Society International and the League for Coastal Protection, cite violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act. The naval plan calls for blasting high-intensity sonar in one of the world’s richest and most diverse marine environments, including the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. This U.S. protected coastal zone is a habitat for 27 marine mammal species, including migrating gray whales and endangered humpback and blue whales. This is a critical issue for anyone concerned for marine mammals. High-powered sonar testing around one of the world’s greatest biosphere reserves, recognized by the UN, also calls into question the health and safety of thousands of people – divers – that frequent the species-rich waters of the Santa Barbara Channel and beyond. There is now a sizable body of scientific evidence that documents the military’s intense sonar testing is lethal to whales. Post mortem studies on cetacean fatalities show cranial injuries consistent with decompression sickness – the bends. The Navy has even documented sonar’s negative effects on their own divers. It is not difficult to imagine its impact on recreational divers unaware of the Navy’s sonar activities originating miles away and beyond the visible horizon. Joel Reynolds, Senior Attorney and Director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC has said, “The Navy’s rejection of common sense protective measures needlessly endangers whales and other marine life off our coast. It defies California’s authority, grounded in the Coastal Act, to safeguard the unique and irreplaceable natural resources along our coast.” Among the mitigation measures suggested by the California Coastal Commission that the Navy refuses to adopt are: seasonal restrictions to avoid gray whale migratory routes; monitoring for marine mammals 30 minutes before training begins; avoidance of areas with high numbers of whales and/or dolphins; larger safety zones to protect marine mammals and sea turtles in the vicinity of training activities; and lower sound levels during times of low visibility. The lawsuits seek to require that the Navy implement these and other mitigations. On January 23 of this year the Pentagon unilaterally declared the military to be exempt for a period of two years from the basic law protecting whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. This was in response to litigation involving the U.S. Navy, aimed at stopping its illegal use of high-intensity sonar. At that time, NRDC’s Joel Reynolds said, “The move constitutes clear admission by the U.S. Navy that its current operations violate the protective standards for whales, dolphins, and other marine life under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It’s not that the Navy can’t comply with the law; it’s that the Navy chooses not to.” Whales around the world have been found dead or dying following encounters with mid-frequency military sonar. In 2004, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission – the preeminent international body of scientists studying whale populations – reported that the evidence connecting mid-frequency sonar to whale mortality “is very convincing and appears overwhelming.” Scientists are also concerned about the potential for long-term, cumulative effects from repeated exercises in the region. Ocean Futures Society and I encourage you to learn more about the high-intensity sonar, its effect on marine life and the legal actions being taken to minimize the harm. We will continue to report future actions regarding these lawsuits on our website, oceanfutures.org and here in DIVER Magazine.
Ocean Futures Society divers train in the kelp forests off the Channel Islands and Catalina Island. The Navy’s plan to conduct sonar tests in this area, calls into question the health and safety of people that frequent these waters for work and play. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society
Twenty-seven species of marine mammals spend time in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary each year. Whale watching is a popular recreational activity that contributes to California’s economy. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.
Pods of common dolphins, numbering in the thousands, are regularly sighted off the coast of Southern California. The US Navy refuses to adopt mitigation measures suggested by the California Coastal Commission that include avoiding areas with high concentrations of whales and dolphins. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.