End the War on Whales


Saturday, April 28, 2001

The U.S. Navy has a long history of war on whales. For decades beginning during World War II, families of Orcas in Puget Sound and humpback whales on their birthing grounds in Hawaii were bombed as moving targets in military war games.

Today, the weapon is loud, low-frequency sound, and the effects, however unintentional, are the same.

By asking permission to harass or kill small numbers of whales and dolphins in a "small take" permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Navy has in effect signed a declaration of war.

Since 1997, the Navy has spent at least $350 million preparing an environmental impact statement for a new technology known as SURTASS LFA Sonar (Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active). If it's loud enough, a low-frequency sound like the thumping of a stereo in a teenager's car can travel hundreds of miles underwater. This new active sonar emits low-frequency sounds as loud as 240 decibels (dB) to reflect off "enemy" submarines, said to be no longer detectable using conventional means. The Navy has declared LFA Sonar "a safe system" and plans to deploy four ships carrying the sonar array after testing the effects of loud, low-frequency sound on only blue, fin, gray and humpback whales.

There are many other species of cetaceans and other marine life that may respond differently to loud sounds under different conditions. These studies also recorded only immediately observable changes in behavior to an exposure level of around 150 dB, a sound well below the 240 dB level at which LFA will ultimately be deployed.

Results showed a decrease in the number of blue and fin whale calls, gray whales detoured from migration routes, and half of the humpback whales tested temporarily stopped singing. The Navy concluded that these statistically significant results were not "biologically" significant.

Whales and dolphins depend on hearing in the same way that we rely on sight. A temporary or permanent disruption of hearing could change the way a whale communicates, finds food or a mate, or detects predators.

Evidence from whale strandings associated with military war games shows that exposure to loud sound not only disturbs whales and dolphins but can also cause death. In March 2000, 16 cetaceans beached in the Bahamas at the time of the Littoral Warfare Advanced Development (LWAD) Sea Test----a mid-frequency Active Sonar device. Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor and the Bahamas Marine Mammal Survey, reported that eight whales died from massive hemorrhages in their brains, jaws (an important structure for hearing in whales) and lungs caused by "resonance phenomena." This same phenomenon will cause a crystal wine glass to shatter when an opera singer hits a high note.

Prior to the LWAD test, Balcomb had been studying a group of beaked whales in the area. Since the stranding, none of the thirty-five whales in his study have been seen again. He believes they were killed by the LWAD test in "an acoustic holocaust that can be likened to fishing with dynamite." Balcomb's findings provide the first direct evidence of a link between the use of active sonar technology and whale and dolphin deaths.

Until May 18, the public is invited to send comments to the NMFS about the Navy's "small take" permit and use of this new technology in 80 percent of the world's oceans -- home to dolphins, whales, seals, sea turtles, diving sea birds and many other species important to sustaining life on this planet.

I have studied whale and dolphin behavior for 10 years. After witnessing the Navy's test involving humpback whales in Hawaii, I believe the use of this technology is extremely dangerous with unimaginable consequences for life in the oceans. This acoustic war on whales must end. Public comments on the Navy's permit request should be mailed to:

Donna Wieting,
Chief Marine Mammal Conservation Division
Office of Protected Resources,
National Marine Fisheries Service,
1315 East-West Highway,
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3226
or fax: (301) 713-0376

Leigh Calvez is a Bainbridge Island nature writer.

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