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Navy Releases First EIS for Sonar Training; Hawaii Range Targeted for Continued Sonar Training, Using Current Safety Procedures

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The US Navy has released its first completed Environmental Impact Statement examining active sonar training activities, this one covering training in waters around Hawaii, and proposing to continue current Navy operating procedures, rather than adopting more stringent safety measures. Eleven other regional training ranges are receiving similar scrutiny, with draft EISs released for two, and the final decisions planned for all by the end of 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

Beaked Whales Strand in New Jersey, Florida; Sonar Possible, but Other Causes Likely

News, Sonar 1 Comment »

The appearance of beaked whales on beaches always raises concern about possible sonar impacts, since these deep-diving whales are the family that is apparently most sensitive to mid-frequency active sonar. Over the past couple of weeks, two beaked whales stranded, one dead near Atlantic City, one alive in Florida. The Florida whale has been diagnosed with meningitis, along with infections in multiple organs and a heavy parastic infection in its liver. The whale was too ill to return to the sea; it was euthanized after Navy scientists conducted hearing tests, which have rarely been possible with beaked whales. The Atlantic City whale underwent a necropsy; initial results did not show any clear cause of death or weakness. The Navy has said that there has been no active sonar activity within a hundred miles of Atlantic City since a major exercise ended in early June; while this does not preclude the possibility that the whale was injured while escaping sonar signals, the single animal does not match earlier incidents that involved multiple animals or species. A beaked whale that stranded in the same area in December had an inner ear infection, which could have contributed to its stranding. While ongoing research and closer public scrutiny are offering a clearer sense of the ways that sonar affects beaked whales (especially triggering dangerous/injurious fleeing behavior), it is also important to remember that not every dead whale is a victim of sonar impacts. Sources: CBS4.com, 6/25/08 [READ ARTICLE] Press of Atlantic City, 6/29/08 [READ ARTICLE]

Orcas Avoid Mid-frequency Sonar Signals, but not LFAS; Herring Unaffected

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Kvadsheim, Benders, Miller, Doksaeter, Knudsen, Tyack, Nordlund, Lam, Samarra, Kleivane, Godo. Herring (slid), killer whales (spekknogger) and sonar – the 3S-2006 cruise report with preliminary results. Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). 30 April 2007 
This paper reports preliminary results from an ambitious multi-national Controlled Exposure Experiment using acoustic D-tags, which allow researchers to record received sound levels while charting dive patterns. Six orcas were tagged, with 17 hours of data collected, with one animal exposed to LFAS signals, two to mid-frequency active sonar signals, and one used as a control, fewer samples than hoped. The whale exposed to LFAS signal did not change its behavior, nor did its companions. However, the group exposed to mid-frequency sonar signals ceased feeding and moved rapidly away; in addition, they exhibited an unusual dive pattern, Read the rest of this entry »

Review of Possible Ways that Increasing Ocean Noise May Affect Marine Mammals

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Peter L. Tyack. Implications for marine mammals of large-scale changes in the marine acoustic environment. Journal of Mammalogy, 89(3): 549-558, 2008. [DOWNLOAD PAPER(pdf)]
In this wide-ranging literature review, Peter Tyack of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute sketches the history of research into the effects of noise on marine life, with some references as well to effects noted on terrestrial creatures. He begins by noting that while acute disturbance of individuals attracts the most attention, the likely more profound effects of chronic disturbance on population vitality (success in foraging and mating) are much harder to discern. Several examples are presented of studies that documented both temporary and long-term abandonment of key habitat when loud noise was present Read the rest of this entry »

Marine Mammal Commission Report on Population Viability and Budgetary Priorities for Recovery of Engangered Marine Mammals

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The Biological Viability of the Most Endangered Marine Mammals and the Cost-effectiveness of Protection Programs. A Report to Congress from teh Marine Mammal Commission. February 2008. [DOWNLOAD REPORT (pdf)]
This 400+ page report is the culmination of a multi-year initiative by the MMC. It includes about 60 pages of summation, followed by several lenghty appendixes, the most substantial being a 160-page species-by-species assessment of endangered, threatened, and depleted marine mammals, focusing on historic and current populations, and the status of protection programs for each, and a 30-page report on the population viability of each species; two other sections address Right whale recovery efforts, as this species is a major focus in the western Atlantic. Among the goals of the report is to make recommendations as to how best to prioritize population recovery efforts, within the context of limited funding. The report notes, for example, that some species have received relatively high levels of attention via directed funding (e.g., western Sterallar sea lions), while others have not received enough funding to prevent or even fully understand their ongoing declines (e.g., Cook Inlet beluga whales). Its key recommendation is that a coherent national strategy be developed, centered on a dynamic and adaptable approach that includes both a separate funding stream for research and management for marine mammal population recovery, and a strategy to prioritize recovery attention basedon objective criteria including risk of extinction, expected conservation benefits, competing conservation needs, based on a structured and transparent risk/benefit analysis. One striking element to the MMC report is the consistant attention paid to noise as a key factor in species stress, decline, and recovery.

US Navy Continues Campaign to Calm Sonar Fears, Resist New Restrictions; Scientists Question Navy’s “Absolute” Threshold of Proof of Harm

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The US Navy continued its increasingly adamant defense of its mid-frequency sonar training program this week, with the US Pacific Fleet Commander telling reporters that court-ordered restrictions are making it more difficult to train. Admiral Robert Willard said that one of his strike groups showed “adequate, although degraded” anti-submarine warfare proficiency during recent exercises off California. The fleet certified the group anyway, but noted the ships altered standard techniques and procedures to comply with court rulings. Willard said sailors were learning artificial tactics they wouldn’t use in the real world. “Translate that into the Western Pacific or into the Middle East, where quiet diesel-powered submarines exist in large numbers, and we’re potentially in trouble,” Willard said. Meanwhile, during a field trip to a Navy destroyer off the coast of Virginia, Jene Nissen, the Navy’s environmental acoustics manager, said the Navy was working hard to align their practices with what scientists say is necessary, stressing the lack of any strandings “linked scientifically” to Navy activities during 40 years of presence on the east coast. Some of the scientists on board as experts for the press questioned the Navy’s absolute assurance, noting several incidents in which mid-frequency sonar is suspected of causing strandings or agitated reaction among whales, though absolute proof was not found. Nina Young of the Ocean Leadership Consortium (a program that coordinates several agency ocean programs) said the Navy uses uncertain cause of death rulings to downplay possible links between sonar and mammals. “It’s unfortunate that the threshold for the Navy seems so absolute, and the burden of proof so high, that it undermines efforts to engage in a productive discussion, she said. Andrew Wright, a marine mammal scientist who has worked for the Marine Mammal Commission and NOAA, said definitive proof of sonar’s effect on whales didn’t exist until recently. “We’ve only really known about the problem since 2000, 2002. We don’t have long-term information, even on humans,” Wright said later. “There’s so much uncertainty around this, and it all depends on where you place the burden of proof.” Sources: The Virginian-Pilot, 6/16/08 [READ ARTICLE]  San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/10/08 [READ ARTICLE]

UK Navy Tests Airguns as Alternative to Explosions for Shock Trials

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In the wake of the Falmouth Bay strandings, the UK Navy has announced that it has been testing a new approach to “shock trials,” meant to be less dangerous for marine life. Shock trials test the resilience of ships to mines and torpedoes, typically accomplished by setting off large explosions near the ships. The new technique uses airguns, which release blasts of compressed air, in place of explosives. A Ministry of Defense spokesman said that the resulting pressure waves are less intense, adding that “the new approach reduces the risks to the environment as the only by-product is hot air bubbles.” This statement neglects to mention that another by-product is intense noise, and that, to fulfill its purpose in testing the resilience of ships, there is also a strong pressure wave created. Likely the airgun pulse is less sudden (i.e., the sound wave has a longer rise time), which may help reduce hearing-related damage, but it, like all airguns, will create a startling sound at close range (up to a km or so), and be audible for tens of kilometers at least. The brief press mention of this new “dolphin-friendly weapon” did not clarify whether the system was being used around Falmouth Bay at the time of the strandings; local reports indicate unusual explosive sounds were heard. Source: London Sunday Mirror, 6/15/08 [READ ARTICLE]

Extensive Survey Finds Whales Respond Minimally to Airgun Noise

Bioacoustics, Science No Comments »

Caroline Weir. Overt Responses of Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus), and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (Stellena frontalis) to Seismic Exploration off Angola. Aquatic Mammals 2008, 34 (1), 71-83.

During ten months of seismic surveys off the Angola coast, 2769 hours of marine mammal observations were made from a survey vessel, seeking to determine whether marine mammals avoided the airgun noise. This study did not examine subtler responses, such as dive patterns or call rates, but simply tracked sighting rates and distances. The total number of marine mammal sightings was rather small, given the long timeframe (66 humpbacks, 124 sperm whales, 17 dolphins); the author does not offer any hints as to whether populations are simply low in that area, or whether observations were limited for any other reason (weather, single observer, high seas, etc.). Airguns were active roughly half the time, providing a balanced set of data to look at. The mean distance at which all species were seen was greater when airguns were active than when they were silent, though only the dolphins showed a statistically significant difference. The closest approach of humpbacks averaged 3000m with guns off and 2700m with guns on, with sperm whale results virtually identical; dolphins, by contrast, came much closer during guns-off, 209m, than when guns were on, 1080m. Read the rest of this entry »

Sakhalin Scientific Panel Cites Failure to do Noise Monitoring as Required

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A scientific panel charged with overseeing environmental safeguards at the controversial Sakhalin-II oil and gas field off the Russian North Pacific coast has criticized project developers for failure to adhere to two key requirements designed to protect the critically endangered Western gray whales in the area. Speed limits for boats are not being observed, and the companies have failed to deploy noise monitoring equipment. In addition, the adequacy of the noise monitoring being planned was criticized by the panel. The critique could jeopardize future funding for the project, as key banks have said that compliance with all of the Grey Whale Advisory Panel’s reasonable recommendations is a condition of financing, and the developers committed to doing so in their Health, Safety, Environment & Social Action Plan. Finalization is close on $5 billion loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. Source: Dow Jones, 6/13/08 [READ ARTICLE]

UK Strandings Lead to Murky Picture of Naval Activity

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean 1 Comment »

A week after the UK’s worst dolphin stranding since 1981, reports from locals and the UK Navy are conflicting. Two weeks of live-fire exercises were wrapping up in the area over last weekend, with the Navy first claiming to have concluded those exercises Sunday afternoon, then saying that in fact the last live-fire took place far offshore on Friday, with a mid-frequency submarine-hunting sonar used on Thursday. However, local Falmouth Coast Guard personnel report heavy Naval activity through Sunday afternoon in Falmouth Bay. And, Nick Tomlinson, a local fisherman working 12 miles offshore, experienced a most dramatic blasts than he has felt in the 35 years he has been working the waters off the Cornish coast. “I’m used to the big military guns going off but this was something different – bang, bang, bang, very close, very loud. The vibrations went through the boat and up through my backbone. The whole boat was shuddering.”
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Japan, UK, Madagascar Strandings Spur Sonar Speculation

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Seismic Surveys, Sonar No Comments »

Reports of unusual stranding events around the world this week are each triggering questions about possible sonar connections, despite little clear evidence thus far. In Madagascar, over fifty melon-headed whales stranded and died after becoming trapped in a bay; in the UK, 26 common dolphins (mostly juviniles) died along the shores of an estuary river a pod of fifteen strayed into, likely feasting on fish feeding at an algae bloom, with up to seventy more following in the hours that followed, perhaps responding to their distress calls; other dolphins were found dead on two other nearby shorelines within 15km, including another estuary. In Japan, three Cuvier’s beaked whales have been found dead on beaches in the past three weeks, the latest of 81 whale fatalities (9 of them Cuvier’s) since March. Read the rest of this entry »

Navy Complains About Varying Sonar Rules

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After routine pre-deployment training exercises in Hawaii, some Navy personnel have complained that the differing operational requirements imposed by federal courts in Hawaii and California are complicating, and at times compromising, their mission. Rear Adm. James P. “Phil” Wisecup, commander of the strike group, said the changing sonar rules “just complicate things” in a warfare area that’s already very complex. “In the end, just give me a standard, and I can meet it,” Wisecup said, “But if the standard changes — and it is changing from one area to another — as different judges interpret the law and make decisions on a very complex issue — then we have to adapt.” Read the rest of this entry »