The Navy Knows Sonar Will Hurt and Kill Dolphins, Plans on It Anyway

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.

Photo from Thinkstock

151 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven8 months ago

thanks for the article.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner`2 years ago

John H. Nobody owes the Japanese an "apology" just because the Navy is doing something horrendous to harm whales. And the Japanese "consume" what? hey're not starving eskimos they do factory killing of our wildlife for pure sadism and self indulgence while they make billions from an industrialized economy. 100 million in debt poaching the whale and piling up mercury poisoned poached whale in warehouses. Japan is raping the oceans and committing other egregious environmental crimes for instance against the world's forests. The Japanese in my opinion deserved their tsunami. If you started killing children would cannibalizing their bodies make the crime okay? Give me a break.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner`2 years ago

Kenneth: That is such obvious BS. The only way you can even claim that the Navy "cares about marine mammals" is to APOLOGIZE and STOP forthwith to use explosives and sonar to harm whales, otherwise what you and your Navy thugs are doing is a CRIMINAL activity, just like the Japanese mafia claims they are doing "research" when they are poaching hundreds of whales.

Manuela B.
Manuela B.2 years ago

Now we can compare the US Navy to the Japanese and the Taliban.... and how much will this costs $$$$$$$$$ while the country goes down the drain - literally....

Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright2 years ago

Of course they will continue....they don't give a $h!t anymore than any other big government agency or corporation.

Of course this horrifies and disgusts me to no end. Animals continue to die because of us humans and it makes me sick every single day.

Bravo Keri, I agree with your post 100%.

John H.
John H.2 years ago

I have written several items on this site and others castigating the Japanese and others because they still slaughter whales and kill sharks for their fins and Blue Fin Tuna and dolphins and I don’t know what else. I’ve told them that if they want to join the civilized world they must stop such practices. I owe them an apology. They are, at least consuming what they kill while we, the US, willingly kill and maim dolphins and whales to test & retest a sonar system year after year. It would seem we are the uncivilized.

Dimitris Dallis
Past Member 2 years ago

Thank you Kristina. Signed of course...

Donna Ferguson
Donna F.2 years ago

thanks for sharing

Carrie-Anne Brown

signed, thanks for sharing :)

Kenneth H.
Kenneth H.2 years ago

Each time we use explosives at sea, we conduct marine mammal monitoring before, during and after the event as part of our standard mitigation. Every single time we see an injured marine mammal, we report it to wildlife regulatory agencies through an extensive marine mammal stranding reporting network.

The article mentions two studies. One study suggests that blue whales may swim away or stop feeding when exposed to various sounds under some conditions. What isn't often reported in the press is that not all of the whales reacted to the sounds, and that many of the whales that did react only had brief changes in behavior and quickly reverted to normal activities.

The other study mentioned suggests that beaked whale populations may be declining off the west coast of the U.S., and that the decline could be related to Navy sonar use. However, the study also mentions other potential causes for the possible decline and does not consider independent scientific monitoring data that shows two to five times higher Cuvier beaked whale densities on the Navy's Southern California Range Complex (where sonar is frequently used) than the surveys upon which the study is based.

The Navy cares about marine mammals, and strives to be a responsible steward of the environment as we conduct our activities. We continue to be a world leader in marine mammal research, and to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain permits for our at-