Dave Downey / New York Times – 2008-03-04 21:54:03
(March 2, 2008) — Military officials now know how far they must go to protect whales and dolphins from the ear-splitting sonar that the Navy employs in offshore war games.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday to uphold a January district court judge’s ruling that limits the sonar’s use off California’s coast. The limits came after President Bush had intervened in an attempt to shield the Navy from any judicial restrictions.
The Navy’s next anti-submarine exercise is scheduled for the middle of this month off the San Diego County coast.
The Navy contends that the integrity of its anti-submarine warfare training was placed in jeopardy by limits imposed by the district court’s decision. But the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, maintains it simply forces the military to train in a way that doesn’t harm the ocean or its inhabitants.
At places such as Spain, Greece, the Bahamas, Hawaii and Washington state in recent years, dozens of whales have become stranded on beaches and died following sonar exercises.
A federal judge in Hawaii approved similar sonar limits for that state Friday.
So far, no such beachings of marine mammals have been linked to sonar in Southern California.
But federal officials are investigating whether the death of a Northern Pacific right whale dolphin that beached itself on San Nicholas Island in late January was connected to the Navy’s last major exercise in the area.
Part of the Channel Islands, San Nicholas is west of Santa Catalina Island.
“The Navy clearly does not want to be told what to do,” said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the council in Los Angeles and director of its Marine Mammal Protection Project, in a telephone interview Thursday. “They want to decide what to do, and they want the court to stay out of the way. But that is not how the court system works in this country. The president is bound by the law and so is the Navy.”
Navy officials at the San Diego headquarters of its 3rd Fleet, which will be conducting the exercise this month, declined to comment on the case last week other than to say they were waiting to see what the appeals court would decide.
As realistic as possible
Earlier this year, in an interview at the headquarters, an official stressed that the Navy has no intention of harming wildlife and is simply trying to provide the type of training that will prepare sailors for the situations they could encounter in Asia and the Middle East.
“You want your training to be as realistic as possible,” said Navy Capt. Neil May. “You train like you fight.”
May also said that the rules the judge imposed appear to be unnecessarily restrictive, given the Navy’s track record in Southern California.
“There hasn’t been one single incident attributed to us using midfrequency sonar in 40 years of using it here,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean California is immune to the threat that has been blamed for deaths all around the world, environmentalists and scientists said.
“It’s a big ocean out there, and in most cases if something is going wrong, we won’t see it,” Reynolds said.
Ken Balcomb, a scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., and member of a former committee that advised the federal government on marine mammals’ response to sound, said that there have been beachings in Southern California. It’s just that none of them have been connected to sonar, he said.
And the dolphin death could prove to be the first, Balcomb said.
For now, said Jim Milbury, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Long Beach, “It’s still inconclusive as to what the cause was.”
Friday’s sonar ruling was triggered by the latest in a long string of lawsuits that the Natural Resources Defense Council has filed against the Navy over the matter over the last decade and a half.
It was the first time that any of those suits has reached an appeals court. And the most recent case may go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hiding in shallow water
In January, the case was marked by the highly unusual move by President Bush to excuse the Navy from having to follow some federal environmental laws, in a bid to overturn restrictions.
But U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles left the restrictions in place.
Consequently, the Navy is barred from using sonar in a 12-mile band along the Southern California coast and in an underwater canyon stretching from Santa Catalina Island off Orange County to the Navy-owned San Clemente Island west of San Diego. The canyon is a densely populated haven for marine mammals.
In addition, in areas where the Navy is allowed to practice with sonar, it will have to power down when whales or dolphins are spotted swimming a little more than a mile away and turn the sonar off if they get as close as two football fields.
The power-down requirement “really hamstrings us,” the Navy’s May said.
And he said the prohibition against training within 12 miles of the shore makes it difficult for sailors to train in coastal waters, where they learn how to distinguish the sound signature of enemy submarines from the numerous echoing noises in shallow seas.
“Diesel subs love to hide in that stuff,” May said.
He suggested that listening for submarines in shallow waters is “like going to a rock concert and trying to hear an asp that’s sneaking up on you to bite you.”
However, finding those enemy submarines entails shooting powerful sound waves through the water that approaches 235 decibels initially and remains above 160 decibels a mile away, scientists say.
Causing a stampede
“It’s phenomenally loud, louder than the sounds than you would associate with a rocket lifting off,” said Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research.
When whales or dolphins are nearby, their instinct is to try to get away from the sound, he said. And if the deep-diving animals race to the surface in a frantic rush, they can harm themselves.
“We’re basically causing a stampede,” Balcomb said of sonar’s effect. “They throw caution to the wind. They feel like they have to get up to the surface, so they get up to the surface as fast as they can and they get the bends.”
Just as a scuba diver gets the bends if he or she surfaces too fast, gas bubbles in marine mammals’ blood vessels enlarge as they come up and sometimes rupture the delicate vessels in the brain and ears, Balcomb said.
“And they black out and die,” he said.
That’s what happened when 17 beaked whales stranded themselves on the beach in the Bahamas during a sonar exercise in March 2000, said Balcomb, who had been tracking the mammals. He said that at least 11 whales died.
While some have suggested it is the beaching that triggers death in such situations, Balcomb said that the 2000 incident argues otherwise. He said three of the 11 whales that died were still in the water, indicating that the injuries brought on by expanding gas bubbles were the cause.
Similar injuries may have been to blame for the dolphin’s death in January, he said, as blood and other fluid had been found in its ears.
Still, federal officials say there are other possible explanations. For the example, the fluid could be the result of parasites, Milbury said.
Turning up the volume
Scientists’ explanation for the sonar impact is largely the result of the beachings that have occurred during military exercises, said Brandon Southall, fisheries biologist and director of the acoustics program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md.
“The problem with that is, you don’t know where the animals were when they heard the sound initially,” Southall said, in a telephone interview Thursday.
With that in mind, the federal government launched a first-of-its-kind study in August to monitor the reactions of 21 species of deep-diving beak whales to varying levels of sonar sound in a controlled setting, at an underwater military range in the Bahamas, he said. Scientists from all over the country are teaming up on the experiment that is taking advantage of 82 microphones attached to the bottom of the ocean, under a mile or more of water, in a 600-square-mile area.
Southall said that scientists, who are working primarily in summer, are turning up the volume slowly on purpose to avoid harming whales and can’t exceed 170 decibels under their research permit. The last thing they want, he said, is to trigger a beaching.
At the same time, he said, they want to get a handle on what levels of sound are harmful.
“It’s a difficult balance to try and test something that you know in certain circumstances can trigger strong reactions. So you want to go slow,” Southall said. “But you don’t want to go too slow. … We’re trying to get answers as quickly as possible, but as carefully as possible.”
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