Navy Five-year Sonar Training Exercise Threatens Millions of Whales and Dolphins
September 13, 2015 Joseph Mayton / The Guardian & Whales.org & Center for Biological Diversity
Marine researchers speculate noise pollution in the Pacific is disrupting whales' vital abilities to hear and migrate -- and driving them ashore at an alarming rate. And now the US Navy has announced a five-year plan for sonar-training and testing activities that will result in thousands of animals suffering permanent hearing loss, lung injuries or death. Millions of marine mammals and other oceanic wildlife will be exposed to potentially deadly injuries.
Background Ocean mammals depend on hearing for navigation, feeding and reproduction. Scientists have linked military sonar and live-fire activities to mass whale beaching, exploded eardrums and even death. In 2004, during war games near Hawaii, the Navy's sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kauai.
The Navy and Fisheries Service estimate that, over the plan's five-year period, training and testing activities will result in thousands of animals suffering permanent hearing loss, lung injuries or death. Millions of animals will be exposed to temporary injuries and disturbances, with many subjected to multiple harmful exposures.
'A Deaf Whale Is a Dead Whale':
US Navy Sonars Could Be Cause of Strandings Joseph Mayton / The Guardian
SAN FRANCISCO (June 14, 2015) -- Six whales have washed ashore in northern California in the past two months, prompting headlines around the world and attracting droves of tourists, curious about the massive mammals so suddenly out of their natural element.
According to a California Academy of Sciences (CAS) necropsy one of those whales, a 32ft female humpback that washed ashore in Pacifica, a 20-minute drive from San Francisco, had "signs of trauma consistent with blunt force".
Suggested causes of death have included being hit by a ship and an attack by an orca. But while those might have been the final blows for the whales, other issues are being raised by environmental groups such as Earthjustice, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace. These issues include the US navy's use of sonar.
Moe Flannery, a stranded marine mammal responder and manager of the CAS Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy, declined to give a cause of death shortly after conducting the necropsy on the first Pacifica whale. But she did say the whale showed signs of muscle hemorrhaging, an injury which research has shown to be consistent with sonar-related deaths.
Other researchers who participated in the necropsy, including those from the Marine Mammal Center (MMC), corroborated such findings and pointed out that hemorrhaging does not necessarily mean blunt force trauma from a ship. The MMC, which is currently focusing most of its resources on the problems facing starving sea lions, declined to comment on whether sonar was involved.
Although it is difficult to determine sonar-related injuries and deaths, Earthjustice attorney David Henkin argues hemorrhaging should not be used as a reason to dismiss sonar as a potential culprit. Possible evidence of sonar contributing to whale deaths, such as emaciation, hemorrhaging and bleeding of the brain, was present in the Pacifica humpback stranding and in stranding in Santa Cruz of two grey whales.
"That difficulty [in determining cause of death] should not be misinterpreted as raising questions about whether sonar is a likely cause of many strandings and associated marine mammal deaths," Henkin said.
According to the NRDC, a non-profit that seeks to protect wildlife, sonar can be devastating to whales and other marine animals that rely largely on hearing to complete daily functions, including orientation and communication. Without the ability to hear, it is difficult for whales to "find their way through the world every day", the organization says in a fact sheet.
In March, a US district court in Hawaii found that the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) improperly gave approval to the navy's use of sonar in the Pacific, an issue long-contested by environmental groups that allege sonar is causing damage to marine animals' migration patterns, feeding locations, breeding and ability to hear and communicate.
The navy uses sonar for training, to simulate real-life situations in the ocean. Thousands of sonar devices remain in the coastal waters of the Pacific as Earthjustice and other environmental organizations negotiate with the navy on how and where it should use sonar for drills.
"Like so many things in life, it's not what you do, it's how you do it," said Henkin when discussing the ongoing negotiations with the military. "The most serious harm to marine mammals occurs when sonar use is in close proximity to animals . . . Thus, the focus of our efforts has been on minimizing and, where possible, eliminating, sonar use in areas identified as biologically important to marine mammals."
The Hawaii court said that it found numerous problems with the justifications NMFS gave in authorizing the navy's sonar program. Chief judge Susan Oki Mollway delivered a written ruling, which bordered on bewilderment.
"Searching the administrative record's reams of pages for some explanation as to why the navy's activities were authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service," she wrote, "this court feels like the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner who, trapped for days on a ship becalmed in the middle of the ocean, laments, 'Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink'."
The navy is not being forced to stop using sonar, says Henkin -- it is only a matter of where and how. The navy requires authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The navy's current five-year permit expires this year.
Linking strandings to sonar is a challenging and often impossible task, but previous incidents can give clues. A 2006 report published by NOAA and the NMFS reported that the stranding of over 100 melon-headed whales was "likely" the result of sonar training having been conducted in the area.
The sonar testing forced the animals to change their normal migratory patterns, which resulted in at least one calf dying from dehydration. The report linked the death directly to the sonar testing.
The navy did not respond to requests for data on recent sonar training drills along the California coast. But the navy uses powerful sonar for nearly 12,000 hours a year in the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing Study Area. For all types of sonar combined, the navy uses more than 50,000 hours a year. It cites national security as a reason to continue the practice and training exercises.
In a May 2012 report on sonar use, the navy said acoustic sources and sonar more than 2.5 million times annually exposed marine animals to sounds considered "disturbing", while around 500 times a year marine animals were exposed to sound levels that were considered to result in injury.
Sonar is designed to create an echo through the water. This is then bounced back to the emitting vessel in order to determine if another vessel is in the water, such as a submarine. For marine animals, especially whales and dolphins, sonar creates sound waves that reflect back and forth much like an echo in a canyon. This can disrupt their ability to communicate and locate food sources.
Greenpeace reports that seismic occurrences in the ocean, including sonar, can result in the "temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, beach strandings and even death".
Sonar is not the only noise-making culprit that has scientists worried about marine life. In a recent report on Shell's exploration efforts in the Arctic, activities such as drilling, seismic testing and ice-breaking activities were said to expose whales to damaging sounds.
Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace, said "a deaf whale is a dead whale", referring to a study by Oceana from 2013.
While sonar may never definitively be named as the cause of the whales' deaths, it is having a direct role in changing marine ecosystems.
According to a Monterey Institute primer, titled Noise Pollution and Whale Behavior: "Whale sonar allows the animals to find food, safely travel along irregular coastlines, and migrate to and from breeding and feeding grounds. Some whales uses bursts of loud noise to drive and confuse their prey."
"These activities are becoming more and more difficult as manmade noise in the sea has increased dramatically. Ship traffic, oil and gas exploration, scientific research activities, and the use of military sonar and communications equipment have caused an increase in ambient marine noise of two orders of magnitude in the last 60 years."
The World Wildlife Fund reports that marine life is migrating to different waters as climate change's effects on the ocean's biodiversity take hold, disrupting centuries of established norms.
"Even when stranding does not result, military sonar can cause hearing loss and internal injuries to marine mammals that results in death, even if the animal does not end up on shore," Henkin said.
"Indeed, it is because most deaths associated with military sonar are never observed that both NMFS and the navy use modeling to determine likely harm to marine mammals." Military Activity Probably Cause of Mass
UK Whale Stranding Says New Government Report Whales.org
(June 24, 2015) -- The findings of a new government report into the causes of a mass stranding of pilot whales in the Kyle of Durness, Scotland in 2011 have revealed that military exercises in the area at the time were the probable cause of the deaths of 20 whales.
In July 2011, WDC staff assisted BDMLR in a long and difficult rescue where 44 pilot whales were successfully returned to the open ocean. Unfortunately, scores of the whales also died as a result of the stranding which occurred in an area where the military activities were taking place.
Post mortems carried out at the scene showed that, with the exception of one whale with a septic shoulder joint that was not debilitating, all were healthy. The Navy denied they were to blame for the deaths despite claims that large 1000lb explosives were used around the time of the stranding.
After the stranding, WDC formally requested a full investigation, which Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) have now released. WDC also requested details from the MOD of the types of activities that were being conducting in the area at the time, and the size of the detonations that were taking place.
Noise pollution threatens whale and dolphin populations, interrupting their normal behaviour, driving them away from areas important to their survival, and at worst injuring or sometimes even causing their deaths. For whales and dolphins, 'listening' is as important as 'seeing' is for humans -- they hunt, navigate, communicate using sound - yet there are still no international regulations regarding noise pollution in the world's seas.
In 2013, a scientific analysis of the UK's largest common dolphin stranding off the coast of Cornwall also stated that the most probable cause of the event were naval exercises in the area at the time.
For a number of years WDC has been calling on the MOD to undertake a Strategic Environmental Assessment of all its activities that take place in its two offshore exercise areas in the UK -- one of which is off the west coast of Scotland and includes the Cape Wrath range.
"On the Wednesday evening, some locals reported seeing whales close to shore", recounts WDC policy lead, Sarah Dolman. "The following day, a number of high order explosions including 3 x 1000lb bombs were detonated. At noon on Friday the pilot whales were stranding in Durness and subsequently further detonations occurred. It would have been extraordinary if the series of detonations had not impacted this pilot whale pod.
"Strandings data provide vital information about the health of whales and dolphins and post mortem of whales that don't survive is the only way we can pinpoint anthropogenic causes of health. Determining when intense noise has been a factor is incredibly tricky, but scientific techniques are being developed that will do exactly this in the future.
"One day we will look back and ask how it was that such intense noises as explosions were allowed to occur in productive waters such as these, without any monitoring or mitigation of whales and dolphins. "
WDC reiterates that such assessments are critical to ensure that the management and mitigation of all MOD activities are fit for purpose and can protect the UK's valuable marine wildlife.
In addition, the MOD should review its activities around Cape Wrath and ensure that management and mitigation are sufficient to ensure the safety of whales and dolphins in the area -- such measures might include aerial surveys in the vicinity before clearance is given to detonate explosives, to ensure the area is clear of whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife. Royal Navy Bomb Explosions
Caused Mass Whale Deaths, Report Concludes Noise from underwater bombs caused 19 pilot whales to beach and die off the coast of Scotland in 2011, say government scientists Rob Edwards / The Guardian
(June 24, 2015) -- Four large bombs exploded underwater by the Royal Navy were to blame for a mass stranding which killed 19 pilot whales on the north coast of Scotland in 2011, government scientists have concluded.
A long-delayed report released on Wednesday by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs says that the noise from the explosions could have damaged the hearing and navigational abilities of the whales, causing them to beach and die.
On 22 July 2011, 70 long-finned pilot whales swam into the Kyle of Durness, a shallow tidal inlet east of Cape Wrath, Europe's largest live bombing range. Despite attempts to herd them back out to sea, 39 were left stranded by the tide.
Concerted efforts by expert teams and local people managed to refloat 20, but 19 ended up dead. It was one of the largest mass strandings in recent years, and it prompted a government-funded investigation by 12 scientists from laboratories across the UK.
Their report reveals that three 1,000-pound bombs were detonated in the sea nearby by the Royal Navy's Northern Diving Group in the 24 hours before the whales were stranded. A fourth 250-pound bomb was exploded after stranding began.
The bombs were left over from military exercises in which planes target Garvie Island, a small rocky outcrop 4.5km from the Kyle of Durness. Some bombs miss the island, fail to detonate and sink to the seabed, where they have to be located and disposed of for safety reasons.
"The magnitude, frequency and proximity of the multiple detonations in the day prior to the stranding, and the single high-order detonation shortly after the beginning of the mass stranding, were plausible sources of significant disturbance to any neighbouring marine mammals," the report says.
The three initial explosions could have had a "significant detrimental effect on the hearing and therefore navigational competence of any cetaceans in proximity," it adds. The fourth bomb "might have served to drive the animals further inland".
Loud noises can damage the hair cells in the ears of whales vital for detecting pressure changes, leaving them "functionally deaf", the report points out. "Long-finned pilot whales are known to follow other members of the pod and appear to spook relatively easily."
It criticises the Royal Navy's visual checks for whales before bombs are exploded as "insufficient", and recommends improved monitoring. It also highlights the routine use of devices elsewhere in the world that burn out rather than detonate bombs.
"Given the potential damage to marine life from the high-order explosions of conventional disposal techniques, it is questionable why this method has not been used routinely in the past," the report says.
The lead author of the report, Andrew Brownlow from Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme at Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) in Inverness, was pleased that it had "finally" been published. It was hard to be definitive about the causes of mass strandings, he said.
"However we have suggested mitigation strategies which will hopefully reduce the plausible risk from these types of high-energy detonations on marine life. It is hoped they will be taken on board."
According to Sarah Dolman, Northeast Atlantic programme manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, it was "no coincidence" that the whales were stranded hours after the bombs were exploded.
She said: "Why has it taken four years to publish the report and what measures have the Ministry of Defence (MoD) put in place to evaluate and minimise the impacts of detonations around Garvie Island, to ensure that it adequately protects whales and dolphins since then?"
The MoD said that it accepted the findings of the report. "It identified a number of possible factors that may have influenced events, one of which was the detonation of underwater explosives," said a spokesman.
"The recommendations will be considered by the MoD and implemented where appropriate. Additional mitigation has already been put in place during munitions disposal activities conducted since 2011." Court Rules Navy Training in Pacific Violates
Laws Meant to Protect Whales, Sea Turtles Center for Biological Diversity
Federal Judge Says Feds Wrongly Approved
Plan Allowing Whales, Dolphins, Other Wildlife
To Be Harmed Nearly 10 Million Times
HONOLULU (April 1, 2015) -- A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that the National Marine Fisheries Service acted illegally in approving US Navy testing and training activities in the Pacific Ocean that threaten widespread harm to whales, dolphins, other marine mammals and imperiled sea turtles.
The Navy and Fisheries Service had concluded that, over the plan's five-year period, the Navy's use of explosives and sonar, along with vessel strikes, could result in thousands of animals suffering death, permanent hearing loss or lung injuries.
Millions of others could be left with temporary injuries and significant disruptions to feeding, breeding, communicating, resting and other essential behaviors. In all, the Navy's plan could cause an estimated 9.6 million instances of harm to marine mammals.
The decision of the US District Court for the District of Hawaii results from a December 2013 lawsuit brought by Earthjustice, representing Conservation Council for Hawaii, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Ocean Mammal Institute, which challenged the Fisheries Service's approval of Navy operations off Hawaii and Southern California as violating the National Environmental Policy Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.
"The court's ruling recognizes that, to defend our country, the Navy doesn't need to train in every square inch of a swath of ocean larger than all 50 United States combined," said David Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups. "The Navy can fulfill its mission and, at the same time, avoid the most severe harm to dolphins, whales and countless other marine animals by simply limiting training and testing in a small number of biologically sensitive areas."
The National Environmental Policy Act requires that federal agencies, including the Fisheries Service and Navy, consider a range of alternatives, including alternatives that could be pursued with less environmental harm, and that the public have an opportunity to review and comment on that analysis.
The groups sued because the Fisheries Service and the Navy failed to evaluate alternatives that would place biologically important areas off limits to training and testing.
The judge concluded that the Navy's claim it needs continuous access to every single square mile of the Pacific, and cannot avoid -- even temporarily -- biologically important areas where marine mammals breed, nurse their young, and feed, "makes no sense given the size of the ocean area involved."
Noting the "stunning number of marine mammals" the Navy's activities threaten with harm, the judge also found the Fisheries Service violated its legal duties under the Endangered Species Act to ensure Navy training would not push endangered whales and turtles to extinction and under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to prevent harm to marine mammal populations.
The judge stated: "Searching the administrative record's reams of pages for some explanation as to why the Navy's activities were authorized by the [Fisheries Service], this court feels like the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' who, trapped for days on a ship becalmed in the middle of the ocean, laments, 'Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.' "
"In 2004, Navy sonar during Rim of the Pacific war games was implicated in a mass stranding of around 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay on Kaua'i, with one baby whale dying," said Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of Conservation Council for Hawaii. "This ruling hopefully will spare other marine mammals from a similar fate."
"The science is clear that sonar blasts and explosives kill and injure marine mammals and sea turtles," said Susan Millward, executive director of Animal Welfare Institute. "The court recognized that the law doesn't allow the Fisheries Service to give the Navy a blank check to harm unlimited numbers of animals. Both agencies must do more to protect these vulnerable animals."
"The Navy shouldn't play war games in the most sensitive waters animals use for feeding and breeding," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Fisheries Service has already identified vital areas to protect for whales and dolphins around the Hawaiian Islands and off Southern California, and they should be off-limits to explosives and other dangerous activities. The federal government has a responsibility to protect our natural heritage as well as national security."
"This is an important victory for our oceans," said Marsha Green, president of Ocean Mammal Institute. "The Navy can, and must, find ways to accomplish its mission that reduce the amount of deafening noise that prevents marine mammals from communicating, navigating, feeding and finding mates."