Endangered Whale Species vs. U.S. Navy

ImageIn the news recently, the environmental group EarthJustice has gotten attention for filing a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service.  The National Marine Fisheries Service has granted the request by the United States Navy to intensify their sonar testing in the waters off of Hawaii and California.  It has been widely argued by biologists that the use of this technology leads to an increase in whale beachings on the coastlines.  The use of Sound Navigation and Ranging(SONAR) by the Navy has a negative affect on whale species and should not be supported at it’s current decibel level.

Whales and other marine animals rely on sound waves for communication, procuring food, and navigation in the dark depths of the ocean.  Man made sonar uses sound waves that are much more powerful and has many deadly effects on whales and other marine species.  The U.S. Navy currently uses low frequency active sonar at 240 decibels.  Research has shown that most whale species are affected by sonar levels of 110-120 decibels.  This level of sonar frequencies overpower the sound waves that whales use for survival and cause other physical effects as well.  Some of the physical effects observed from studying beached whales include: bleeding around the brain and ears, air pockets in skin tissues, and large bubbles in their organs from rapidly surfacing in response to sonar.  There has been observed confused and distressed behavior that can ultimately lead to beaching.  Some whale species have stopped feeding, have strayed from their migratory path, and have “stopped singing” which is a part of their mating ritual.  There are studies that have shown that some whales who are exposed to low frequency sonar, have perforated eardrums.  Biologists are concerned that whales and other marine animals could suffer prolonged changes in diving, mating, feeding, and communication.  

There is substantial proof that correlates an increase in whale beachings along coastlines with the use of Navy sonar.  After the use of sonar during a routine exercise by U.S. Navy destroyers in the Bahamas, there were 14 beached whales within 36 hours.  Those whales eventually died due to heatstroke.  In the Canary Islands, 14 whales washed ashore and died following an international military sonar exercise.  In 2004 in waters off of Kauai, around 200 whales were distressed and swimming 100 feet from shore following Pacific Rim naval exercises.  Thanks to volunteers, the whales were able to be herded back out to sea with only one casualty.  There may be more casualties in response to sonar use that we are unaware of, since dead whale carcasses sink to the bottom of the ocean floor.  We are only aware of the casualties when whales are beached and autopsies are performed.  

The Navy itself has acknowledged that there may be harmful effects on whales and dolphins due to their sonar use.  In a joint study conducted by the Navy and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, it was determined that tactical mid-range frequency sonars on the Navy ships were the cause of the Bahama incident.  According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, “The Navy estimates that its activities could inadvertently kill 186 whales and dolphins off the East Coast and 155 off Hawaii and Southern California, mostly from explosives.  It calculates more than 11,000 serious injuries off the East Coast and 2,000 off Hawaii and Southern California, along with nearly 2 million minor injuries, such as temporary hearing loss, off each coast. It also predicts marine mammals might change their behavior — such as swimming in a different direction — in 27 million instances.”  These numbers are estimates of the marine animals that will be affected by the increased sonar testing by the Navy.

Many whale species are on the endangered species list and the use of sonar will continue to drive their numbers even lower.  The United States are in clear violation of one of their own federal laws, the Endangered Species Act.  The purpose of this act which is administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service, is to protect and recover endangered or threatened species and their ecosystems.  How can the National Marine Fisheries Service protect endangered whale species when they approve sonar testing?    

However the use of sonar is deemed necessary by the U.S. Navy to determine the location of underwater submarines.  This has been classified as a national security issue since antisubmarine warfare is the number one threat facing the Navy today.  New submarine technology are being developed in over 40 countries worldwide.   Navy officials have said that they have considered the latest research, but the findings do not prove for certain that sonar causes significant harm to the marine populations.  They argue that what they are proposing is similar to the testing done over the past 60 years, and haven’t seen any major affects on marine animals from these activities.  However these statements seem contradictory to their earlier acknowledgments of sonars’ effects on marine animals.  

There are a few alternatives to the low frequency sonar that could provide a happy medium between the health and welfare of whales and our national security.  The most plausible alternative is passive sonar which involves receiving and listening to sound waves.  This method does not emit a signal and doesn’t involve decibel levels that could harm marine animals.    This could possibly be an advantage for naval ships that want to stay beneath the radar.  By using this new technology we can hopefully try to satisfy both opposing sides while minimizing unwarranted deaths of marine animals.

Since there are possible alternatives to low frequency sonar, the current and future use of Sound Navigation and Ranging(SONAR) by the Navy should not be supported.  There is outstanding evidence that shows the use of sonar at it’s current decibel level of 240, has a negative outcome on whale species.  Considering the studies done by the U.S. Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service, shouldn’t this be enough to warrant other possible avenues of protection for the United States?  The sacrifice of animals for military exercises is inhumane and ecologically insensitive.  Once a species goes extinct, it is lost forever.


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