Listening is as important for dolphins and whales as seeing is for humans, conservationists say. We would be none too pleased if someone shone a flashlight right into our eyes.
Bombarding marine mammals with sonar waves and underwater bombs for five years starting in 2014 is just what the Navy is planning to undertake off the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, Southern California and Hawaii. Two environmental impact statements released by the Navy on the Friday before Labor Day say that such testing is likely to kill hundreds of marine mammals and injure thousands.
Specifically, the testing could kill 186 whales and dolphins off the East Coast and 155 off Hawaii and Southern California.
Off the East Coast, 11,267 serious injuries and 1.89 million minor injuries like temporary hearing loss could result from the testing, as well as 20 million instances of marine mammals changing their behavior by, for instance, swimming in the wrong direction.
Off the coasts of Hawaii and California, the testing could cause 2,039 serious injuries, 1.86 million temporary injuries and 7.7 million instances of behavioral change.
Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the actual effects on marine mammals could be far higher and that “these smaller disruptions short of death are themselves accumulating into something like death for species and death for populations.”
So Why is the Navy Still Going to Carry Out These Tests?
The Navy contends it has to do the training in real-life conditions — rather than via computer modeling, which was used for the studies — because sailors need to “develop or maintain the critical skills they need or ensure the new technologies can be operated effectively,” says Rear Adm. Kevin Slates, the Navy’s energy and environmental readiness division director.
The Navy had to complete the studies prior to applying for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Had it gone ahead with the testing without doing the studies, the Navy could have been in violation of federal law if any marine mammals were harmed.
Fears that other nations such as North Korea could be developing quieter submarines that are harder to detect is one reason the Navy cites as grounds for conducting the testing.
What About Mitigation Measures?
While the Navy has indicated that it would be willing to negotiate about the tests, it has “so far refused” to follow mitigation measures suggested by the California Coastal Commission, says Maureen Nandini Mitra in Earth Island Journal.
Such measures would include not holding testing in the feeding habitat of the endangered blue whale. Earlier this year, a study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society showed that mid-frequency active sonar could scare blue whales (only 10,000 of whom are estimated to remain) so much that they flee their feeding grounds and could starve to death.
Populations of beaked whales have fallen significantly in the past two decades. Another study that came out earlier this year found that beaked whales have a strong response to sonar at levels far lower than the Navy uses for testing. A population sink could be making it difficult for them to breed or to raise their calves, writes Mitra.
This year has already seen more than 300 dead bottle nose dolphins wash up on coastlines from North Carolina to New York since July 1, the highest number in a quarter of a century. Scientists are “tentatively” attributing the deaths to cetacean morbillivirus, which weakens dolphins’ immune systems and makes them susceptible to pneumonia; it is related to the virus that causes measles in humans. Experts are also monitoring the waters off the coast of Georgia to see if they might contain elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which are known carcinogens and can remain on manufacturing sites for decades.
Dolphins face plenty of threats already without the waters they live in being bombarded with sonar and explosives. The Navy needs to be open to negotiating and making compromises about how and where it conducts sonar testing. It took scientists weeks to figure out that a virus was the possible cause behind the hundreds of dead dolphins on the east cost this summer. Should the Navy carry out its testing as planned, if many dolphins are found dead, it will not take long to know what and who the culprit is.
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