This is page 7 of the Ocean Issues Archives, dated March-October 2008. [GO TO MOST RECENT OCEAN ARCHIVES]
[SEE OCEAN ISSUES ARCHIVES 1: Prior to June 2003]
[SEE OCEAN ISSUES ARCHIVES 2: June 2003 - September 2004]
[SEE OCEAN ISSUES ARCHIVES 3: October 2004-February 2005]
[SEE OCEAN ISSUES ARCHIVES 4: March 2005-March 2006]
[SEE OCEAN ISSUES ARCHIVES 5: April 2006-May 2007]
[SEE OCEAN ISSUES ARCHIVES 6: June 2007-June 2008]
See also AEI's Special Reports on Ocean Issues, including Active Sonars and International
Cook Inlet Belugas Declared Endangered as Bush Administration "Panders" to Environmentalists - An isolated population of beluga whales that has experienced a sharp decline in numbers over the past generation has been declared endangered, spurring Congressman Don Young to make a charge rarely heard in DC in recent years: "This is a clear indication they want to pander to environmental groups over enacting sound policy." Around 375 of the white whales now live in the 180-mile long inlet, with Anchorage and Wasilla at its end, down from 1300 in the 1970's. The concern is not just in numbers, said researcher Craig Matkin, but in distribution. Whales in recent years have been staying in northern Cook Inlet near Anchorage. "They're just gone from these areas," he said of his own home near in Homer, near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and about 100 miles from Anchorage. "Why they aren't coming down into this habitat is a question I'd like to answer."
Image courtesy Anchorage Daily News [SOURCE]
NOAA said Friday the Cook Inlet population declined by 50 percent between 1994 and 1998 and "is still not recovering" despite restrictions on the number of whales that Alaska's native population can kill for subsistence. NOAA said recovery has been hindered by development and a range of economic and industrial activities including those related to oil and gas exploration. Noise from seismic surveys and increasing shipping and construction activity (a bridge is planned, as are expansions to the Port of Anchorage) is rated as having "high" risk of jeopardizing beluga recovery. Jason Brune, executive director of the Resource Development Council, noted that the population has increased over the past three years: "Whales aren't like rabbits," he said. "They don't grow their population overnight ... It takes five to seven years to reach maturity for a beluga whale," and this is about the point in time where a population rebound could be expected to begin. Within the next year, NOAA will designate specific areas as critical habitat for beluga recovery; much of the necessary research has already taken place, with NOAA releasing a recovery plan (mandated by the MMPA when the beluga was listed as depleted) this month as well; it appears that areas near Anchorage are especially critical for foraging and calving. Sources: Anchorage Daily News, 10/18/08 [READ ARTICLE] Anchorage Daily News, 10/22/08 [READ ARTICLE] AP, 10/18/08 [READ ARTICLE] San Francisco Chronicle, 10/18/08 [READ ARTICLE]
NOAA Fisheries Alaska Office Beluga Management Site (includes Conservation Plan) [WEBPAGE]
Supreme Court Hears Navy Sonar Case, Transcript Available- For two hours on Wednesday, the long-running dispute between the Navy and NRDC over mid-frequency active sonar had its day in the Supreme Court, and while the Justices did broach some questions about the relative likelihood of harm to cetaceans or Navy training, the legal case itself rests on more procedural grounds having to do with the powers of Federal Judges to invoke new environmental standards, and of the Executive Branch to set aside judicial rulings in the name of national security. Court watchers suggested that the Justices seemed to split in a traditional left-right formation, based on comments made during the hearing. A ruling is not expected until spring. The legal arguments of both sides seem, from the outside, to be slightly out of step with the larger picture: the original 2006 lawsuit challenged Southern California sonar training (which has been ongoing for years) for not having produced an EIS, even as the Navy was initiating a global set of EISs for sonar training (the Draft EIS for Southern California has now been released); the Navy, for its part, claims that the restrictions imposed by the court would cripple its training goals, though evidence thus far suggests very few occasions (over multiple exercises since then) when they had to suspend exercises due to the restrictions. Justice Kennedy chastised the parties for not coming to some kind of compromise agreement; in fact, the Navy and NRDC have done so in the past, though not in this particular case. While NRDC has argued that the Navy has accepted similar restrictions in other places, there are differences in what were imposed this time, especially as compared to two key Hawaiian rulings: the "shut down" zone is 2200 meters (whereas in other cases, this was the distance at which the sonar was reduced in power), and sonar use is prohibited when surface duct conditions are present (other additional restrictions have either called for reduced power in most surface duct conditions, or only kicked in when whales are nearby). In any case, it appears the Navy drew the line on this one, and while the Supreme Court is not likely to be able to untangle all the layers of the dispute, its ruling will shed some light on the relative powers accorded to the Executive and Judicial branches. Sources: Washington Post, 10/8/08 [READ ARTICLE] Los Angeles Times, 10/8/08 [READ ARTICLE] Navy News, 10/8/08 [READ ARTICLE] The Jurist, 10/20/08 (argument summary from Joel Reynolds, NRDC) [READ ARTICLE] SCOTUSBlog, 10/8/08 [READ ARTICLE] SCOTUSWiki (includes links to all briefs and summary of case), ongoing [SEE WIKI] Transcript of Oral Arguments [DOWNLOAD ARGUMENTS(pdf)]
[See AEI FactCheck: Navy/NRDC Sonar Debate]
Fish Farm Raises Noise Concerns in South Africa - A proposed aquaculture project offshore near Cape Town, South Africa, has local tourism promoters concerned about noise impacts. The fish farm would be composed of 36 huge cages, each one 70-100m long, mostly submerged, but protruding slightly from the water's surface. Mossel Bay Tourism chairman Louis Cook said he was not happy with the public participation process which included meetings in Cape Town, but not in Mossel Bay, where “the real stakeholders can be found”, he said. Cook said contentions at the Cape Town meeting that the fish farm would have a minimal impact on whale movements in the bay were doubtful as the proposed cage area was a prime whale viewing spot. The fish farm's plan to use acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs) to keep whales and sharks away from the fish farm was alarming because “our experience has shown that the whale population drops when large-scale fishing, with its accompanying noise from droning motors, takes place in the bay.” Source: The Herald, 10/6/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Increasing Ocean Acidification Could Exacerbate Ocean Noise Problems - A new study suggests that the well-documented increasing acidification of the oceans is likely to cause sound travel further, exacerbating the rising underwater cacophony tied mostly to shipping noise. Small increases in ocean acidity may already be helping sound to travel 10 percent farther than a few decades ago, with larger increases in ocean acidity projected by 2050 poised to allow sound to travel 70 percent farther than today. Thus, any given location's cumulative ambient background noise will include sounds from more ships, including many at much greater distances than are audible today. "Previous reports have shown that increasing ocean noise should have a detrimental effect on marine mammals, such as whales and this will only serve to increase the background noise and have a further detrimental effect people weren't anticipating," says researcher Keith Hester. The increased sound propagation will affect sounds below about 3kHz, which includes most shipping noise as well as low-frequency sonar, but not mid-frequency sonar. The increasing acidity is largely, but not solely, tied to increasing carbon dioxide absorption. Sources: American Geophysical Union, 9/29/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE] Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, 9/29/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE] New Scientist, 9/23/08 [READ ARTICLE] KCBA, 10/1/08 [READ ARTICLE]
New Device Deters Seals From Fish Farms, Construction With "Fingers on Chalkboard" Effect, Not Painful Volume - Fish farms often have to cope with seals swimming up to their cages and grabbing lunch. The use of Acoustic Deterrent Devices is widespread, but have problems: first, to have a deterrent effect, the sounds must be loud enough to chase seals away, which means that they can pain or cause physical injury to hearing as well; and second, animals tend to acclimate to the noise. A new system being developed at St. Andrews University in Scotland takes a different approach, which does not produce sounds near the pain threshold of sea mammals. Vincent Janik's team has created a deterrent that uses a sound that is adverse but not loud. He said there are many examples of these kinds of sounds for humans. "The famous example is the fingers over the chalkboard,' said Janik. 'It's not a very loud sound but, nevertheless, we have a very strong physiological response when we try to avoid the sound. We've exploited these kinds of phenomenon to develop systems that work in the same way for seals.' In addition to protecting fish farms, another application for these systems could be offshore construction sites. Janik said the noises created during the construction of offshore wind farms, for example, can be extremely loud and they can cause injury to sea mammals like dolphins. "So devices like this could be used to keep dolphins away from sites for the duration of construction," Janik said. The device will turn on only when an animal is detected in nearby waters. Source: The Engineer, 10/1/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Six Years Later, Canary Island Strandings Still Spur Questions - The BBC has run a three-story series that reflects on the stranding deaths of six beaked whales during NATO sonar training exercises in late September 2002. Coming two years after a similar incident in the Bahamas during a US Navy sonar training exercise, the Canaries stranding cemented a growing concern about the potential for injury in the deep-diving beaked whale family. Studies that took place in nearby Las Palmas revealed the first clear evidence of tissue damage in the injured whales, and while scientists still are not certain of what sort of disruptions in the dive patterns may cause the injuries, this set of tissue lesions has become a "smoking gun" for sonar-induced injury.
Two images from the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria: heads ready for necropsies, and the tell-tale hemorrhaging and lesions caused by nitrogen bubbles expanding in tissues
The BBC pieces are all well worth a read. The first provides a good historical look at the impact of the 2002 strandings and the research that has taken place since then. The second addresses how little we still know about beaked whales, and the third is a diary of several days at sea on a beaked whale research trip. All three include video clips of interest. Sources: BBC, 9/28-30/08 [READ ARTICLE: STRANDINGS] [READ ARTICLE: BEAKED WHALES] [READ ARTICLE: RESEARCH DIARY]
Supreme Court to Hear Sonar Case October 8 - Oral arguments on the California sonar case will take place before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, October 8, in the culmination of perhaps the most convoluted sonar challenge to date. The case began as a simple NEPA challenge to routine Naval sonar training off the Southern California coast in early 2007. NRDC and its co-plaintiffs contended that the Navy should have prepared an EIS, and a District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction imposing additional safety measures (most centrally, increasing the "shut down zone" from 200 yards to 2000 meters), based on her reading that NRDC's legal challenge was likely to prevail and there was a likelihood of injury to marine mammals under the Navy's proposed safety measures. While the Navy appealed this decision, the Executive Branch (CEQ) interceded, attempting to overturn the injunction and impose its own safety measures, claiming the injunction had created an "emergency" since sonar training was essential. The Appeals Court returned the decision on this question to the District Court, which ruled that the Executive Branch had overstepped its authority in designing safety measures, and that no emergency existed. The Appeals Court fundamentally upheld the lower court decision, though it allowed some of the safety measures to be put on hold while the case reached its final resolution. Even as they approach their date with the Supreme Court, the two sides are framing the case rather differently. The Navy will argue that the court order of extra safety measures were disruptive enough to essential training so as to warrant an emergency designation, so that the CEQ intervention was in fact legal. In addition, the Navy will argue that even if CEQ had overstepped its bounds, the District Court had not established that injury to whales met the legal threshold of certainty required for an injunction to be issued, and further, that the risks to national security had not been sufficiently considered. The NRDC frames the case as more simply a matter of judging the facts of likely injury, and that the lower court and appeals court had indeed found a "near certainty" of harm; it also holds that the CEQ had no legal standing to intervene in a judicial matter, and that to do so would raise serious separation of powers issues. It is unlikely that the Supreme Court will wade into the "factual" questions about how likely injury may be (which would involve deciphering voluminous scientific research), and that the case will revolve around how much power the Executive Branch can yield in the name of national security when military plans are challenged on environmental and legal grounds, or, conversely, how far a court can go in imposing its own remedies in scientific and environmental protection matters (one Navy argument is that he court had the power only to order an EIS, not to decide what mitigations were sufficient). Central to the original District Court decision is the District Court's belief that the Navy could, in fact, successfully conduct its training while using the enhanced safety measures contained in the injunction. The Navy's response to NRDC's brief includes vigorous arguments that their training would be seriously impaired under the restrictions imposed. Sources: San Jose Mercury News, 9/27/08 [READ ARTICLE] SCOTUS Blog, 6/12/08 (good summary of case) [READ ARTICLE] SCOTUS Blog, 6/19/08 (scroll down, 3rd from bottom; includes links to Navy petition, NRDC brief, and Navy response) [READ ARTICLE]
Undersea Warfare Training Range DEIS Moves Site to Florida, Near Right Whale Calving Area - A new Draft Overseas EIS released by the Navy shifts the preferred site for a long-planned sonar training range from North Carolina to Florida, near Jacksonville. The 575 square mile Undersea Warfare Training Range would be outfitted with a grid of instrumentation which is designed to provide detailed feedback during training missions using mid-frequency active sonar. The instrumentation, including passive listening devices, would also allow for more robust monitoring for marine mammals.
The Navy's environmental analysis concludes, as it did in a similar document prepared in 2004, that the sonar training is unlikely to kill any animals, and that any behavioral disruption will be temporary and mild. The proposed site is fifty miles offshore, in an area where threatened North Atlantic right whales congregate nearer to shore each year to give birth. "We believe we're far enough off that we're not going to have an adverse effect on right whales," said Jene Nissen, environmental acoustics manager for the Navy's Fleet Forces Command. Navy analysts concluded that humpback and right whales might behave differently when exposed to sonar from the range. But Nissen said the effects would be low-level, and not permanent. Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, isn't convinced. Jasny said the 1,000 pages of analysis the Navy compiled to support its decision "makes no attempt to consider cumulative effects on marine mammals, beyond glib statements that they wouldn't occur." Marguerite Jordan, a spokeswoman for Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency has begun reviewing the Navy's analysis. The state has not reached any conclusions, she said. If previous experience is a guide, the Navy could run into stiff opposition from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. In January 2006, the commission told the Navy that Florida's northern waters should not be considered for the training range - and in no case should the range be used between mid-October and mid-April, when right whale calves typically are born. "The winter inhabitants off the coast of Jacksonville include the most vulnerable component of the right whale population," the commission said in a seven-page letter to the Navy in 2006. "The additional noise levels and increased vessel traffic could jeopardize the females and calves of a species that is already at high risk of extinction.... We believe the importance of the southeastern calving grounds to the persistence of the species renders the Jacksonville [operating area] inappropriate." Public comments are being accepted through October 27. Sources: Virginian-Pilot, 9/29/08 [READ ARTICLE] Jacksonville Shorelines, 9/22/08 [READ ARTICLE] Charleston Post and Courier, 9/17/08 [READ ARTICLE] [NAVY DOEIS WEBSITE] [DOWNLOAD PAGE FOR DOEIS SECTIONS]
WDCS Sponsors Population Surveys in Moray Firth in Preparation for Possible Offshore Energy Proposals - The UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society is conducting marine mammal surveys in Scotland's Moray Firth this summer, in order to provide the government with more accurate population figures as it moves ahead with proposed oil and gas exploration and wind energy development in the sensitive area. Sarah Dolman of WDCS notes that "The oil and gas industries are doing a lot at the moment with very little information." As well as a population of about 130 bottlenose dolphins, other species, including minke whales, harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins and basking sharks have all also been spotted in the Moray Firth. The dolphins are protected under EU law in an Special Area of Conservation.
Moray Firth is the large bay at the northeast tip of Scotland. Inverness is at its inner point.
Dolman supports plans in the draft Scottish Marine Bill to set out a network of marine protection areas around Scotland, but says she is concerned about suggestions in the consultation document that there will be a presumption of "sustainable use" in the areas, which she thinks could see industry, fishing, and shipping in fragile spots. Instead she wants the bill to set a presumption that areas with important marine species should be left free of industry from fishing to renewables unless they can prove they have no impact on the underwater wildlife. "We are very supportive of marine protection areas as long as they protect marine areas, which is what they are supposed to be about," she said. The UK government is currently considering offering oil and gas exploration leases in the Firth. Source: The Scotsman, 8/23/08 [READ ARTICLE]
US Navy Agrees to Geographical Limits on LFAS - A federal district court has approved a settlement between the Navy and a NRDC-led coalition of environmental groups that will limit training missions using Low-Frequency Active Sonar to several specific regions in the Pacific Ocean. Negotiations were ordered by the court after NRDC challenged the legality of permits the Navy received which would have allowed nearly worldwide use of the powerful submarine-detection system. Ed note: in practice, the Navy's two LFAS-equipped ships have remained in the western Pacific, where they can monitor Chinese and North Korean subs. The new agreement allows the Navy to use LFAS in more areas than were allowed under a similar agreement several years ago, including waters near the Philippines and Japan (with seasonal restrictions), as well as areas north and south of Hawaii, while explicitly banning its use in some biologically important areas, including marine sanctuaries near Hawaii. The agreement applies only to training and allows the Navy to use LFAS elsewhere when necessary to track submarines during actual operations. The Hawaiian operations will stay at least 50 miles from the islands, but will allow for more convenient training missions for Hawaii-based units. Since LFAS signals can remain loud enough to potentially trigger behavioral responses for rather long distances (the Navy estimates that LFAS signals would be 140dB at 300km), the new Hawaiian operations may provide some opportunities to see whether mid-range effects are seen. Both parties seem happy with the agreement, in keeping with the judge's initial court order to negotiate, which required the parties to report to her on their progress on last Valentine's Day. "We are satisfied with this settlement, and we appreciate the mediator's efforts to help the parties come to an agreement," said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Sean Robertson said, while Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "We don't have to choose between national security and protecting the environment. Today's agreement maintains the Navy's ability to test and train, while shielding whales and other vulnerable species from harmful underwater noise." Sources: Hawaii Star-Bulletin, 8/13/08 [READ ARTICLE] ENS, 8/12/08 [READ ARTICLE] San Francisco Chronicle, 8/13/08 [READ ARTICLE]
[See AEI Special Report: Active Sonars]
US Researchers Observe Whale Reactions to Sonar; UK Report Suggests "Significant" Behavioral Responses - As a new UK Navy report suggests that beaked whales made "potentially very significant" behavioral changes in response to mid-frequency active sonar signals, a team of scientists has just completed a pilot study that involved monitoring the detailed behavior of whales during a major Naval exercise. The UK military report details observations of whale activity during Operation Anglo-Saxon 06, a submarine war-games exercise in 2006. Produced for the UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the study used an array of hydrophones to listen for whale sounds during the war games. Across the course of the exercise, the number of whale recordings dropped from over 200 to less than 50. "Beaked whale species appear to cease vocalizing and foraging for food in the area around active sonar transmissions," said the report. Although the location of Operation Anglo-Saxon 06 has been removed from the report, the pattern of hydrophones shown in one diagram matches that in the US Navy’s AUTEC range in the Bahamas. Meanwhile, the most extensive field study of behavioral reactions to sonar have just been completed. During the month-long RIMPAC exercises around Hawaii, researchers successfully tagged more than thirty individual marine mammals of four different species. They measured how deep-diving marine mammals feed, interact with one another, dive and respond to sounds in their environment.
A short-finned pilot whale with a Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute D-tag attached to its dorsal fin.
(Courtesy of Ari Friedlaender, Duke University)
Some devices recorded short duration bits of detailed information about how the animals move and the sounds they make and hear. Others provide, and continue to provide, longer-term data on their geographical movements around the Hawaiian Islands. About half the tagged animals were pilot whales. Other species included melon-headed whales, false killer whales and Blainville's beaked whales. "This was the first time that we were ever able to tag these animals around realistic military exercises," said Brandon Southall, director of the ocean acoustics program for NOAA's fisheries division and a co-sponsor of the study. It will likely take months to compile the data from the sensors so the whales' movements can be compared with detailed information on when and where the Navy ships were using sonar. Even then, Southall said, the data won't be conclusive. But it is a starting point, and he expects whale-tracking projects to coincide with Navy exercises in coming years. A related study will take place this month in the Bahamas, involving tagging whales and playing back sounds similar to sonar and orca calls. Sources: Virginian-Pilot, 8/5/08 [READ ARTICLE] NOAA Press Release, 8/5/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE] Nature News, 8/4/08 [READ ARTICLE] NOAA Behavioral Response Study Website (Bahamas) [WEBSITE]
Related: Researchers Seeking Answers About Beaked Whales and Sonar in Bahamas - The second year of a multi-year Controlled Exposure Experiment (CEE) in the Bahamas is gearing up for field work on the Navy's Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), which boats a 600 square mile grid of undersea instrumentation, including hydrophones, that allows researchers to track animals with far more precision than normal. But the central research involves attaching suction-cup "D-tags" to beaked and pilot whales; the tags record sound heard by the animal while also tracking their dive patterns in detail. Researchers will then play sounds that simulate naval sonar and orcas (predators of the whales), and see how the animals respond. Last year's initial field season was hampered by bad weather, and only a few whales managed to be tagged; initial results indicate some avoidance of sonar signals. One of the key beaked whale stranding events involving sonar occurred in 2000 in the Bahamas training range, but it is not yet clear what exactly triggered the event. The Navy suggests that a confluence of specific factors, including steep canyons and limited escape routes, were to blame; researchers hope to learn much more in this and future CEE experiments, to help them understand how common severe reactions to sonar may be. Beaked whales are often seen around the Navy’s testing site for mid-frequency sonar in the Bahamas, according to NOAA Fisheries acoustics program director Brandon Southall. “So we know that marine mammals and beaked whales can live where there is sonar,” Southall says. “It is not like a death ray where as soon as they hear it, they swim to the beach and strand.” Editor's note: This article, which appeared without attribution on a divers' website, is one of the most detailed overviews of the current science that I've seen. Source: Divemaster.com, 7/7/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Polar Bears Studied for Clues About Their Sensitivity to Arctic Energy Development Noise - A new research project is doing basic studies that aim to clarify how and whether polar bears will be disturbed by increasing industrial noise, especially near winter dens. Hubbs-Sea World biologist Ann Bowles has completed initial studies of polar bear hearing, confirming that they are sensitive to low-frequency sounds, though they were unable to create a sound insulation set-up at the San Diego Zoo quiet enough to keep out sounds below 14kHz, a bit lower than the most sensitive humans can hear. The inability to test extreme infrasonic hearing is an important limitation, as large carnivores are often quite sensitive to such frequencies, and industrial noise can also include very low frequencies. Phase two of the research, set to begin this winter, will involve construction of a simulated bear den, in order to record the sound levels of machinery that penetrate this naturally silent sanctuary. Among the questions that researchers hope to eventually answer are: What kind of noise might be a problem for the bears? Will noise from human activity bother bears in the open, but not females in their dens? Should there be limits on noise allowed in the vicinity of the bears, and exactly what kind of noise would be a problem? "If you want to mitigate noise, you first have to know what the bear can hear," Bowles said. Source: American Institute of Physics, 7/29/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE]
More on Hawaii Stranding: Swimmers Heard Strange Sound Prior to Whale Stranding; NRDC Stays Out of Fray; Navy Releases First Sonar Use Details; Kidney Disease Prime Suspect - News keeps emerging from the recent stranding of a beaked whale at the end of a month-long Naval exercise in Hawaii. The most recent development is preliminary results from a necropsy, which have led researchers to suspect that the whale was suffering from congenital kidney disease. Though sonar impacts are not the prime suspect, two different swimmers reported hearing strange electronic screetches in the waters near where the whale stranded last week, adding to concerns that Naval exercises may disrupt cetacean behavior. Colin Crosby said he and his fellow campers heard an electronic sounding screech when they dove into the water. Crosby said the noise started off soft and kept getting louder until a very loud pitch could be heard both in and out of the water. It then died down a bit and echoed through the water before the sequence started up again. “It was bizarre,” said Crosby. “I can’t really say I’ve heard sonar before, but what else could it be?” He said each sequence lasted about 10 to 15 seconds and occurred in a cycle of about 30 seconds. Carol Harms, a West End resident, was also at the beach that day with a group of friends. She said they heard a reoccurring beeping noise running on a cycle between 47 and 53 seconds. “It was very, very loud and all of us wanted to get out of the water because of it,” said Harms. Pacific Fleet spokesperson Mark Matsunaga said he could not comment on whether there was sonar use occurring at the time Crosby reported hearing the noise, but he said the Navy is analyzing data on its training exercises using sonar. "Without being there or talking with him, we will not speculate on what Mr. Crosby or his friends may have heard," Matsunaga said. The nearest RIMPAC ship to use mid-frequency active sonar at anytime during the three days leading up to the discovery of the whale was about 28 miles away from the coast, on the northwest side of Molokai, he said. (Ed.note: the swimmers were on the northwest side of the island; the whale stranded along the southern shore) While Matsunaga acknowledged that there is a possibility that the whale’s actions are connected to sonar transmissions, “there is no indication that any Navy activities caused or contributed to that whale stranding itself.” (this would seem to imply that sonar was not in use at the actual time the whale was found near shore). “Mid-frequency active sonar is the most effective means available to detect and locate diesel electric submarines.” Each sonar signal lasts about one or two seconds, he said. “It’s not like you send out one and then immediately another. [You] send a signal, go quiet, and listen for a return.” Local environemntal lawyer Paul Achitoff, an Earthjustice attorney who participated in a successful sonar lawsuit last year, said the evidence "is about as strong as it can be," with a whale known to be susceptible to injury from sonar stranding a day after sonar soundings were heard in the area. “It’s impossible to say conclusively at this point but all the indications are that it was connected,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Architoff. “If there was ever a circumstance where it appeared that sonar was responsible, this is it.” Strikingly, the NRDC, lead plaintiff on several sonar-related lawsuits, is not leaping into the fray, perhaps because this solitary stranding differs from previous group strandings related to sonar. Zak Smith, an NRDC lawyer, said the group would reserve judgment until the NOAA report was finished. “Until scientists have completed their investigation on the animal, we would not have a comment,” he said. Sources: Molokai Dispatch, 7/7/08 [READ ARTICLE] Molokai Times, 8/1/08 [READ ARTICLE] Maui News, 7/31/08 [READ ARTICLE] Navy Times, 7/31/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Previously:Beaked Whale Stranding at End of Month-long Navy Exercises - As the US Navy approaches the end of the month-long multinational RIMPAC training exercise in waters around Hawaii, a single Cuvier's beaked whale has turned up on a Maui beach. After several hours of near-shore struggle, it was euthenized and taken to Hawaii Pacific University for a necropsy, to attempt to determine the cause of death. Beaked whales have been the most common species associated with sonar-induced strandings, but previous incidents have usually involved several animals at a time. It is unclear how close sonar exercises were to the stranding site, though the Navy initiated aerial surveys of coastlines within ten miles of the Maui site, and did not see any other stranding victims.
Beaked whale being transported to Hawaii Pacific University for necropsy. Photo courtesy HPU.
Military officials said there was no indication RIMPAC activities were to blame. According to the Navy, crews follow protective measures when using mid-frequency sonar by posting lookouts and reducing or stopping sonar transmissions when marine mammals are nearby (ed note: beaked whales spend very little time at the surface and are therefore very hard to spot even with normal lookout activity). "There's nothing visual on the animal that would lead to something, a man-made type of problem," said Chris Yates, the Assistant Regional Administrator for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries Service; some previous sonar-related strandings included clear bleeding from eyes or ears. "Marine mammals strand all the time for various reasons, and it would really be unfortunate and premature to jump to conclusions about the cause of the stranding when we really don't have any idea," said Yates. Environmentalists, while not jumping to place blame, urged diligent investigation. "This particular type of whale has consistently been associated with stranding related to the Navy's sonar all around the world," said Paul Achitoff, attorney with the Earthjustice office in Hawaii, adding, "So when one happens while the Navy is using its sonar ... it's obviously something that should raise concern among any objective person." Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga cautioned that "Any statements implicating sonar or RIMPAC activities are premature and speculative." Until the Navy is clear about when and where its sonar was operating on Sunday and Monday, questions will continue. Sources: Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7/30/08 [READ ARTICLE] Honolulu Advertiser, 7/30/008 [READ ARTICLE] KHLN.COM, 7/29/08 [READ ARTICLE] AP/Navy Times, 7/30/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Beaked Whales Strand in New Jersey, Florida; Sonar Considered, but Other Causes Likely - 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]
Navy Releases First EIS for Sonar Training; Hawaii Range Targeted for Continued Sonar Training, Using Current Safety Procedures - 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. After a catastrophic stranding of beaked whales in the Bahamas in 2000, the Navy began working toward complying with NEPA (which requires analysis of activities that may cause harm to wildlife); after rebuffing discussions with NRDC in 2004 about the effects of mid-frequency sonar (which led to a lawsuit in 2005, not yet heard in court), the Navy began applying for Incidental Harassment permits in 2006, and began the EIS process for all of its training ranges in 2007, receiving a 2-year presidential exemption from NEPA to allow them to complete the EISs without being subject to lawsuits in the meantime. The Hawaii EIS is consistent with the other DEISs already released, proposing to continue sonar training at levels similar to current activity, with safety procedures similar to those the Navy has been using in recent years. The Navy is hoping that its detailed analysis of the effects of sonar on marine creatures will provide a legally defensible foundation for their safety measures, which include shutting down the system when whales are within 200 meters. Environmental advocates, and the states of Hawaii and California, have pushed for much larger safety zones and setting specific biologically-rich areas off-limits to sonar use; two Federal District court rulings have ruled against the Navy, and we can expect that the final EISs will face challenges as well. With some of the procedural challenges now off the table (earlier challenges focused on lack of NEPA and MMPA compliance, and the related lack of legal/scientific justification for the Navy's current safety measures), it will be interesting to see how far the courts decide to wade into the more strictly scientific arguments about the validity of the Navy's analysis of current data and of the risk to wildlife. Sources: Honolulu Advertiser, 6/27/08 [READ ARTICLE] Hawaii Reporter, 6/26/08 [READ ARTICLE] AP, 6/26/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Related: NOAA Accepting Comments on 5-year IHA permit for Hawaii Range Complex - In consort with the finalization of its EIS, the Navy has applied for Incidental Harassment Authorization permits from NOAA, as required under the MMPA. The IHAs are issued with required mitigation measures meant to protect whales from harm; as proposed, the mitigations closely follow the Navy's current 29 Protective Measures, including power-downs when whales are within 1000 yards and shutdowns when whales are within 200 yards. Additional measures include shutting down sonar operations if any "unusual stranding event" occurs, as well as designated "humpback cautionary areas" where sonar training is to be largely avoided (though allowed with approval of upper level commanders). Public comments will be accepted through July 23. Source: Maui Weekly, 7/3/08 [READ ARTICLE] [WEBPAGE TO DOWNLOAD IHA PROPOSAL]
Round Britain Powerboat Race to Slow Down for Marine Mammals - Concerns about noise and collisions have forced the organisers of the Round Britain Powerboat Race to revise parts of the course after the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) raised concerns about the safety of marine wildlife along the course. Race organizers have re-routed part of the course to avoid areas frequented by basking sharks, and to impose strict speed limits as the participants move out of Inverness where many dolphins live. Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, MCS Biodiversity Policy Officer, said "We urge the race boat pilots to be highly vigilant along the route and slow right down in the vicinity of any marine wildlife." Racers will receive daily information briefings to boat pilots regarding known marine wildlife activity in the area, including advisory GPS waypoints to use to avoid marine wildlife. Dr Solandt said: "The last minute approach the organisers have taken is far from ideal. "We feel the conservation and welfare of marine wildlife should have been considered in the race planning a long time ago - if MCS, and other wildlife groups had been consulted sooner we could have done more to help." The ten-day race begins June 21, with about fifty contestants. Near Moray Firth, precautions are being taken to protect dolphins. Director of the race organising committee, Alan Goodwin, said: “We have produced charts with marked boxes and are laying buoys at areas that will be strictly no-go areas for the boats.” Ray Bulman, the race press officer, said the race had been moved 10 miles out to sea while the speed of the boats would remain below 20 knots as they were led to the start point as they leave Inverness. Source: Motorboat and Yachting News, 6/20/08 [READ ARTICLE] Inverness Courier, 6/13/08 [READ ARTICLE]
US Navy Continues Campaign to Calm Sonar Fears, Resist New Restrictions; Scientists Question Navy's "Absolute" Threshold of Proof of Harm - 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]
Sakhalin Scientific Panel Cites Failure to do Noise Monitoring as Required - 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 - 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." (Press reports are not clear on whether Tomlinson heard this on Sunday or Monday.) On Monday, dolphins were found trapped in two different estuary rivers, and milling unusually close to shore near Falmouth. Dead dolphins had mud in their lungs and stomachs, likely taken on while floundering in low estuary tides. The British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), which coordinated the rescue of several dolphins, said they received reports from the public that an explosion took place at sea over the weekend. Such an explosion could have panicked the dolphins - who were away from their natural deep water habitat - and sent them up the river to shallow waters. "It does not mean that the Navy is to blame, but it would be naive of us to ignore the activity that has been going on," said the BDMLR.
The main stranding sites were in the Perculi River, right side of image, with other dolphins also caught in the Helford River, bottom left, with some dolphins milling unusually near to shore at Falmouth as well. All of these estuaries could have offered quiet refuge from any loud noises occurring in Falmouth Bay or the open ocean nearby.
Image courtesy Google Maps
BDMLR chairman Alan Knight, said: "The fact that they have beached in four separate sites is very unusual. It indicates to me that there is some kind of disturbance." For the first week, statements from the Royal Navy neglected to mention whether mid-frequency sonar use during the exercises; a spokeman admitted to a reporter who asked about it that she was not sure and would have to check. Navy statements have said only that no low-frequency sonar was in use, and that a short-range high-frequency mapping sonar was being used on Sunday and Monday 12 miles offshore; the mapping sonar is unlikely to have caused a panic that far away, as high-frequency sound dissipates at short range. A week later, the UK Navy admitted that a "dipping" version of the mid-frequency sonar (dangled from a helicopter) had been used on the Thursday before the strandings, spurring speculation that the dolphins may have entered Falmouth Bay at that point, and been disoriented for several days. It seems more likely that, whether chased into the bay by the dipping sonar or not, some dramatic event on Sunday or Monday morning was more directly to blame, sending the dolphins into two estuaries where they floundered and died. Two alternatives to the idea that noise chased them upstream have become less likely as more information appears: no orcas were seen in they bay, making it unlikely a pod could have chased the dolphins in three directions at once, and while there were many fish feeding on unusually large algae blooms in the area, most dead dolphins had no fish in their stomachs, suggesting they were not feeding when they were in the estuaries. Sources: Telegraph, 6/15/08 [READ ARTICLE] The Guardian, 6/14/08 [READ ARTICLE] London Times, 6/12/08 [READ ARTICLE] Telegraph, 6/10/08 [READ ARTICLE] Daily Mail, 6/11/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Related?: UK Navy Tests Airgun Alternative to Explosions for Shock Trials - 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 done 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]
Ships to Avoid 1000 Square Mile Area to Protect Right Whales - Ships have been asked to avoid a thousand-square-mile area off the Nova Scotia coast, in order to reduce the risks of ship strikes killing more critically endangered Right whales. The closure is voluntary, and standard ship-tracking communication systems are being used to monitor compliance. On the first day of its implementation, June 1, twenty ships passed through the area, a major New York to Halifax shipping route, with sixteen modifying their courses to stay out of the new whale protection zone. It appears that the whales have grown accustomed to the ship noise, and do not take measures to move away; noise directly in front of a ship is also lower, due to sound shadowing by the ship's hull. “It’s like living beside a train track,” says biologist Angelia Vanderlaan. “After awhile, you stop hearing the trains go by.” Vanderlaan says changes they’ve proposed have been supported and indeed embraced by Canadian companies, such as Irving Oil. But the same is not true in the United States. Efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to impose seasonal speed restrictions (to 10 knots an hours) in areas frequented by whales have been stonewalled by the White House, she says. The rule has been awaiting clearance at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs since February 2007. There is also a proposal to create an area to be avoided in the Great South Channel, near Cape Cod. “The World Shipping Council is against restrictions and people are fighting it tooth and nail,” she says. “But if a whale is hit at a slower speed, they’re more likely to survive the injury.” Source: Science Daily, 6/6/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Biannual Sonar Training In Hawaii Gears Up, State Imposes New Directives - The biannual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise involving ships and 20,000 troops from ten countries is scheduled for June 29 to July 31. The public comment period on the proposed NOAA permits for the exercises closed June 23. As that period closed, however, the Hawaiian state Office of Planning has announced new directives meant to assure that sonar signals reaching the shore are less than 145dB, which would likely impose an effective 25-mile exclusion zone around the islands. The state also said that it expects the RIMPAC operations to adopt all the additional mitigation measures imposed by Federal District Court Judge David Ezra in his February ruling, which applied only to 12 smaller training exercises. The Navy has responded that it does not feel that Hawaii has legal standing to impose its own rules, but that it is willing to discuss the matter with the state; a similar move by the California Coastal Commission led to a series of legal actions that now await Supreme Court review. Source: Maui News, 6/22/08 [READ ARTICLE] AP, 6/25/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Lawsuit, Claims of Science Supression Accompany New Chukchi Lease Sale - A consortium of native and conservation groups has filed suit in federal district court, contending that an impending MMS lease sale in the Chukchi Sea did not adequately assess environmental impacts. The suit claims that the risk of an oil spill, along with the effects of seismic survey noise and the combined effects of energy development and global warming, all should recieve more scrutiny before leases are offered. Meanwhile, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has released emails and statements by former MMS marine mammalogist that charge the agency with changing key biological conclusions in its environmental assessments and downplaying the risks of moderate-level noise from seismic surveys. The sale proceeded as planned on February 6, and attracted record bids. Leases were offered in an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania; Annell Bay, Shell vice president of exploration for the Americas, said the lease sale was an opportunity to move into an undeveloped hydrocarbon base that could help meet an increasing demand for energy and blunt the import of petroleum. 'There's not many areas like this in the United States,' she said. Wildlife managers will review both exploration plans and development plans submitted by successful bidders. Companies were told they may have to account for polar bears if the animals are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act laws. MMS kept a coastal corridor up to 50 miles wide out of the sale; the area is used by migrating whales and subsistence hunters. Sources: Earthjustice press release, 1/31/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE] PEER press release, 2/19/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE] Forbes, 2/7/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Related: Chukchi Lease Sale Set for February, Locals Seek Delay - The US Minerals Management Service has issued notice of its first oil and gas lease sale since 1991 along Alaska's northwest coast. The sale, scheduled for February 6, covers about 25 million acres, out to about 200 miles offshore. The sale area will not include near-shore waters ranging from about 25 miles to 50 miles from the coastline, which includes the near-shore area through which bowhead and beluga whales, as well as other marine mammals and marine birds, migrate north in the spring, and in which local communities subsistence hunt. North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta said, “With all the changes happening out in the Chukchi Sea, I don't think we should be adding to the problem with offshore oil exploration.” It is unclear whether noise from beyond the buffer zone would affect migrating whales or other marine life in the area; the Borough has asked MMS to gather more baseline data before considering development. “You can't measure the impacts over time if you don't have a starting point,” Itta said. “That's the whole purpose of baseline data.” On Dec. 26, a consortium of local and national environmental organizations asked MMS to delay any decision on the lease sale until it considered new information contained in its letter. The lengthy document outlined issues related to summer sea ice retreat, polar bears, walrus, humpback and fin whales and gray whales, noting that substantial new information has surfaced since the federal environmental impact statement on the proposed sale was completed. MMS officials said leases issued would include stipulations to address environmental effects that may occur because of exploration and development of oil and gas. These stipulations call for protection of biological resources, including protected marine mammals and birds and methods to minimize interference with subsistence hunting and other subsistence harvesting activities. Source: Alaska Journal of Commerce, 1/13/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Related: Shell May Scale Back Exploration in Beaufort - Shell Oil may cut its Beaufort Sea exploratory drilling program in half this year, using one rig instead of two. "Just as it is important to develop these resources it is important for us to build a relationship with the communities and stakeholders who have asked us to slow down and take a more measured approach," said Shell US manager John Hofmeister. In July, environmental groups and Inuit villages won an injunction against Shell in federal appeals court in San Francisco. Inuit living along the coastline fear that noise from drilling could disturb migrating bowhead whales, walruses and seals, which they depend on for food. The court is still reviewing the matter. Source: Toronto Star, 2/20/08 [READ ARTICLE]
Court Forces Navy to Meet With NRDC to Limit LFAS Deployment, Again - In August, the Navy received a 5-year permit to operate its Low-Frequency Active Sonar system on two ships, nearly anywhere in the world, after several years during which its deployment was limited to a remote area of the West Pacific. This week, the same Federal Judge who ordered the earlier reduction in deployment issued a temporary restraining order calling on the Navy to keep its LFAS signals out of several sensitive marine areas worldwide, and to once again sit down with the NRDC and its allies to hammer out a mutually agreeable set of restrictions for the coming five years. Judge Elizabeth Laporte asked for a joint statement on efforts to work out a new agreement to be in her hands by February 14 (Ed. note: is that date a bit of judicious humor?). For starters, the judge added the Davidson Seamount, off Monterey, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, the Galapagos Islands and Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the areas off-limits to routine testing of LFAS; the original permit included a few areas, mostly off the American and Canadian coast. The judge also indicated that the 12-mile exclusion area for all coastal areas may not be large enough. The order came in a lawsuit, filed by a coalition of conservation organizations led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), challenging the Navy’s proposed deployment of the LFA sonar system in over 75 percent of the world’s oceans. The lawsuit asserts that a permit issued last year by the National Marine Fisheries Service, allowing deployment of the sonar system around the world, violated a number of federal laws including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Mark Matsunaga, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet, said the Navy had opposed the injunction that Laporte ordered but is pleased that it is being allowed more leeway than under the 2002 injunction. He said the Navy has two sonar-equipped ships, both in the Western Pacific, and has been using low-frequency sonar since January 2004 "with no evidence of negative effects on marine mammals." Sources: LA Times, 2/6/08 [READ ARTICLE] San Fancisco Chronicle, 2/7/08 [READ ARTICLE] NRDC Press Release, 2/6/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE]
Federal Judge Rejects White House Exemptions for CA Sonar - The federal judge who imposed additional safety requirements on Naval mid-frequency active sonar training off the California coast has rejected the Bush administration's attempt to exempt the Navy from the laws she was enforcing. Central to this ruling is the fact that there is no "emergency" that warrents such intervention by the White House; the training missions at issue have been long planned, and can proceed, albeit with larger safety buffers and some geographic restrictions to avoid areas with higher numbers of whales. U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper wrote that the Navy's position "produces the absurd result of permitting agencies to avoid their NEPA obligations by re-characterizing ordinary, planned activities as 'emergencies' in the interests of national security, economic stability, or other long-term policy goals. This cannot be consistent with Congressional intent," she ruled. "It is a bedrock principle of our government that neither the military nor the president is above the law," said Richard Kendall, co-counsel with NRDC in the lawsuit. "Judge Cooper has upheld that fundamental doctrine." The Navy has completed six of 14 large-scale training exercises scheduled off the coast between February 2007 and January 2009. It decided not to conduct a full environmental review before the operations, saying it already posted lookouts and took other adequate protective measures. But Cooper, in an order last August, said those measures were "woefully ineffectual and inadequate" and would leave nearly 30 species of marine mammals, including five species of protected whales, at risk of harm.
Sonar Technicians monitor contacts off the coast of Southern California during a Joint Task Force Exercise in early 2008. (US Navy photo)
"The U.S. Navy has trained in Southern California for the past 40 years and they have had zero incidents with marine mammals - no strandings, no deaths, and no documented injuries," said Rear Adm. Larry Rice, director of the Chief of Naval Operations Environmental Readiness Division. "We want to keep that up," added Rice. "In order to accomplish this, we have 29 protective measures that we already employ. The additional training restrictions that the court levied on us frankly don't help us take care of the environment--and it restricts our training." (ed note: it is becoming apparent that the Navy feels strongly that it is doing enough to protect whales, and is very unresponsive to judicial decisions that it perceives as ill-advised and lacking scientific merit. What may be overlooked by the Navy and the media, is that this and other related rulings are looking at evidence of behavioral impacts that occur at lower sound levels which can still lead to physical injury; also, this and other rulings have been spurred by the Navy's decisions to not conduct full NEPA-required environmental assessments. The Navy is now in the midst of EISs for many naval training ranges, but current activities are not covered). "I don't know what it's going to take for the Navy to get it," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, "The courts have said over and over that the Navy must follow the law." The Navy has appealed Cooper's ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which resisted ruling on the validity of the exemptions in January, sending the case back to Cooper instead. Sources: Los Angeles Times, 2/5/08 [READ ARTICLE] Environmental News Service, 2/4/08 [READ ARTICLE] Navy News, 2/4/08 (announcing new sonar website) [READ ARTICLE] [NAVY SONAR WEBSITE]
For earlier news stories and more context: [See AEI Special Report: Active Sonars]