New Navy Sonar and Dead Whales

FEED Daily | 01.05.01
Now Hear This
by Ben Cosgrove

"SAVE THE WHALES." Along with other, equally simplistic -- and equally sincere -- slogans of the seventies and eighties ("Split Wood, Not Atoms," "Divestment Now"), the exhortation has an almost quaint, antediluvian ring. Of course, many whales -- like the rare, slow-swimming Northern Right and the enormous, solitary Blue -- are still in serious trouble. Japan, Norway, and Iceland continue to hunt other species, often under the dubious aegis of "research." Meanwhile, the public's interest in the myriad threats to whales has undeniably, and perhaps inevitably, waned. Luckily for environmental activists everywhere, if not for the whales themselves, the U.S. Navy has been hatching a scheme so illogical that it might just push leviathans back into the limelight. How? By deafening the fluked animals.

The little island to the left is called Cayo Yayí. It is one of the better known camps.
To the right is the mainland of Vieques. Most of the camps are within very short distances.
That's not exactly the Navy's objective, of course. But a host of environmental and advocacy groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Earthwatch, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Sierra Club, have warned that if the Navy's current plans to deploy Low-Frequency Active Sonar are carried out, it could spell massive disruption and even death for whales, dolphins, and other marine animals that rely on their hearing for navigation, feeding, courting and mating -- in short, for their lives. The Navy has repeatedly responded to concerns about Low-Frequency Active Sonar (a technology it has developed over the past twelve years) by pointing out that sonar has been used in the world's oceans for decades, without any appreciable effect on whales or other marine mammals, and that its own Low-Frequency Active Sonar tests have provided no evidence that active sonar poses a threat to ocean life.

But the "sonar's-been-used-harmlessly-for-years" argument is disingenuous, at best. At worst, it's cynical in the extreme, and fails to credit a central argument by opponents of Low-Frequency Active Sonar: namely, that there's a difference between passive sonar, which listens for sounds generated by ships and submarines, and active sonar, which employs a transmitter emitting sound pulses, and a receiver for recording returned echoes. One might as well argue that because someone swinging a bat doesn't get hurt when the bat strikes a ball, then the ball isn't harmed, either. Comforting to the batter, no doubt, but hell on the ball. (Calls to Navy offices for comment on this story weren't returned.)

The notion that colossally loud noises can be damaging isn't exactly news. Anyone who's ever been fanatic or stupid enough to stand before a wall of speakers for the duration of a rock show knows that sound isn't an aesthetic abstraction; it's a physical force, and one with which to be reckoned. At high volume -- say, 120 decibels, the equivalent of a jet engine at take-off, or your average Motorhead concert -- sound can be painful. Prolonged exposure can wreak havoc on one's hearing. And sudden, explosive sounds at somewhat higher decibels (180 and above) can rupture eardrums.

Low-Frequency Active Sonar is designed to operate within an even higher range -- up to 220 decibels, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Generated by an array of loudspeakers suspended several hundred feet beneath a ship's hull, Low-Frequency Active Sonar is capable of creating enormous sounds audible for hundreds of miles. According to the National Resources Defense Council's Andrew Wetzler, there's no real dispute that sound at those levels is "physiologically devastating" to marine mammals close to the source. Wetzler and others also point to various whale-beachings that have occurred on the heels of nearby Low-Frequency Active Sonar activity, including the stranding in the Bahamas last spring of fourteen whales of various species the day after Low-Frequency Active Sonar tests in the Caribbean and a mass-beaching by twelve small whales on the west coast of Greece in 1996, days after NATO reportedly tested an Low-Frequency Active Sonar system in the Mediterranean -- evidence that, even if the unfathomably loud sonar doesn't kill the animals outright, it can incite them to effectively kill themselves.

In fairness, Wetzler notes that the Navy has taken measures to avoid operating Low-Frequency Active Sonar in the vicinity of animals likely to be harmed by explosive sonar waves. Since testing of Low-Frequency Active Sonar  began more than a decade ago, near the tail end of the Cold War, the Navy has generally respected the strictures laid down by international maritime law, as well as those dictated by U.S. legislation, such as 1972's Marine Mammal Protection Act. In other words, the Navy seems to be following legal and environmental protocols -- for instance, requesting the correct permits for testing sonar off the U.S. coastline -- even if that means deployment of its new strategies might be delayed indefinitely.

But, Wetzler adds, environmental groups have long noted two distinct schools within the Navy: one willing and determined to work with civilian oversight agencies before deploying technology like Low-Frequency Active Sonar; the other an "old guard who feel that Low-Frequency Active Sonar is a national security issue, and one requiring far more secrecy than openness." (The National Resource Defense Council and other environmental watchdogs are reasonably certain that NATO is the only military organization aside from the U.S. Navy currently developing and experimenting with Low-Frequency Active Sonar technologies.)

With a new administration set to take over in Washington within weeks, the battle over which school of thought holds sway in the Navy might be fought and won sooner than any of us would wish.

Ben Cosgrove is FEED's Managing Editor.


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