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Letters about US Navy sonar and killer whales in San Juan County

NMFS report: Navy sonar affected whales

posted 03/18/05
Sonar used for three hours by the USS SHOUP during a training exercise in Haro Strait in May 2003 likely affected killer whales behavior that day, according to a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The report states: "It is very likely that many, if not most, of the 5 May 2003 sonar transmissions from the USS SHOUP were audible to the members of J-pod...It is also likely that the considerable reverberation of sonar transmissions known to have existed during the event compromised to some extent the ability of animals to determine the location and movement of the vessel.

Auditory masking takes place when noise and biological signals overlap. Other ships were also in the area on May 5, 2003, but the report says the sonar was the "dominant noise event."

No permanent damage was done to the whale's hearing, according to the report. "The long-term biological significance of auditory masking resulting from sonar exposure was likely minimal, considering the relatively brief duration (just over three hours) of exposure."

A PDF version of the report is available on the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site.


Cause of porpoise deaths remains uncertain

posted 02/10/04
No definitive evidence linking the deaths of 11 harbor porpoises to a May 2003 U.S. Navy sonar exercise in Haro Straight has been found according to a preliminary scientific report. UC Davis wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos of Orcas Island was one of the authors of the report released Feb. 9, 2004. Gaydos said the investigation was difficult because some of the carcasses were rotting when they were collected.

"Additionally, we need to know more about the effects of mid-range sonar on marine mammals' hearing systems," he said. The panel did find signs of illness or injury in some of the porpoises' ears, he said. "But we aren't able to distinguish damage caused by sonar from damage caused by other agents, such as decomposition."

The porpoise carcasses underwent a variety of studies, including high-resolution computer tomography (CT scanning) and tests for chemical toxins, diseases and parasites. The scientific team then analyzed that data to establish a possible cause of death for each animal.

The team declared a cause of death for only five of the porpoises. Two had died of "blunt-force trauma," which could include ship strikes or natural injury from coming ashore or being struck by another animal. The other three likely died of peritonitis, a bacterial infection (salmonellosis) and pneumonia.

The team said it could not find evidence of acoustic trauma in any of the animals but cautioned that lesions "consistent with acoustic trauma" can be difficult to interpret in decomposed animals. It said the possibility of acoustic trauma exacerbating or compounding the conditions that it found "cannot be excluded" in any of the animals.

Gaydos and 13 other scientists were asked to investigate after 14 porpoises stranded and died just before and after a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, the USS Shoup, conducted sonar exercises in Haro Strait. The scientists included veterinarians, pathologists, biologists and an expert in porpoise ear anatomy.

Gaydos is staff veterinarian for U.C. Davis Wildlife Center's SeaDoc Society which has offices and laboratories on Orcas Island. SeaDoc Society focuses on the marine wildlife and ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest.

For the past several years Gaydos and Richard Osborne, research director of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, have investigated the death of every marine mammal found dead on the shores of San Juan County. The area has more than a dozen different species of marine mammals, including orcas, harbor porpoises and harbor seals.

The 60-page preliminary report which is available online at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/mmammals/cetaceans/necropsypage.htm was released Feb. 9, 2004 for scientific review. A final report is expected in April, 2004.

Federal Court restricts global deployment of Navy sonar

posted 08/28/03
PRESS RELEASE: A federal judge ruled August 26, 2003 that the Navy's plan to deploy a new high-intensity sonar system violates numerous federal environmental laws and could endanger whales, porpoises and fish. In a 73-page opinion, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte barred the Navy's planned around-the-world deployment and ordered the Navy to reduce the system's potential harm to marine mammals and fish by negotiating limits on its use with conservation groups who had sued over its deployment.

The sonar system, known as Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active sonar (or LFA), relies on extremely loud, low-frequency sound to detect submarines at great distances. According to the Navy's own studies, LFA generates sounds up to 140 decibels even more than 300 miles away from the sonar source. Many scientists believe that blasting such intense sounds over large expanses of the ocean could harm entire populations of whales, porpoises and fish. During testing off the California coast, noise from a single LFA system was detected across the breadth of the North Pacific Ocean.

"Today's ruling is a reprieve not just for whales, porpoises, and fish, but ultimately for all of us who depend for our survival on healthy oceans," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC, the lead plaintiff and counsel in the case. "The decision recognizes that both national security and environmental protection are essential. It recognizes that during peacetime, even the military must comply with our environmental laws, and it rejects the blank-check permit that would have allowed the Navy to operate LFA sonar virtually anywhere in the world."

In her ruling, Judge Laporte found that a permit issued to the Navy by the National Marine Fisheries Service to deploy LFA sonar violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it did not adequately assess or take steps to mitigate the risks posed by the system to marine mammals and fish.

Judge Laporte found that, "endangered species, including whales, listed salmon and sea turtles will be in LFA sonar's path. There is little margin for error without threatening their survival…Absent an injunction, the marine environment that supports the existence of these species will be irreparably harmed."

In October, Judge Laporte granted a request by conservation groups for a temporary injunction to restrict deployment under the permit. Today's ruling orders the Navy to negotiate with NRDC and its co-plaintiffs on terms of a permanent injunction that would limit where, when and how the Navy can use LFA for testing and training. The injunction wouldn't prevent the Navy from using the system during war or "heightened threat conditions," as determined by the military.

Scientists have been increasingly alarmed in recent years about undersea noise pollution from high-intensity active sonar systems, which have been shown to harm and even kill whales and other marine life.

The mass stranding of multiple whale species in the Bahamas in March 2000 and the simultaneous disappearance of the region's entire population of beaked whales intensified these concerns. A federal investigation identified testing of a U.S. Navy mid-frequency active sonar system as the cause. Last September, mass strandings occurred in the Canary Islands as a result of military sonar, and in the Gulf of California as the likely result of an acoustic geophysical survey using extremely loud air guns.

Most recently, more than a dozen harbor porpoises were found dead on the beach near the San Juan Islands soon after the Navy tested active sonar in the Haro Strait in May. Videotape shows a pod of orca whales in the foreground behaving erratically as the Shoup, a U.S. Navy vessel, emits loud sonar blasts. Recent tests on one of the harbor porpoises revealed injuries consistent with acoustic trauma.

"The science is clear -- intense active sonar can kill whales, porpoises and fish," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society of the United States, one of the co-plaintiffs. "The Navy must find ways to test and train with the LFA system that do not needlessly damage marine life."

"The public has a strong interesting in minimizing, as much as possible, any disruption or injury to these creatures from exposure to the extremely loud and far-traveling naval sonar system," Judge Laporte wrote in her opinion. "Public concern has been heightened by incidents where exposure to another kind of Navy sonar has led to lethal strandings of whales on the beach, as in the Bahamas in 2000."

"The court properly ruled that the permit to deploy the LFA system violates federal law," said Andrew Sabey, a partner with the international firm of Morrison & Foerster, which is representing the plaintiffs NRDC, the Humane Society, the League for Coastal Protection, the Cetacean Society International, and the Ocean Futures Society and its president, Jean-Michel Cousteau.

"The marine environment is an invaluable resource that we all must share," said Jean-Michel Cousteau. "I am very pleased that good sense has prevailed. The court has taken an extremely valuable step to protect a part of our life support system from destruction."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Another dead porpoise found

posted 05/14/03
PRESS RELEASE: The Whidbey Island Marine Mammal Stranding Network received reports of two dead Harbor Porpoise on west Whidbey Island on Tuesday, May 13, 2003. A female Harbor porpoise was found in Fort Casey State Park, near Admiralty Head Tuesday morning by Waste Wise Program Coordinator Janet Hall. Sandy Dubpernel, a volunteer for the Whidbey Island Stranding Network responded to the report, collecting information, photos, and securing the specimen for National Marine Fisheries so they can investigate into the cause of death. There were no visible signs of the cause of death, but the porpoise was bleeding from its eye and blowhole.

The second Harbor Porpoise report was from an Oak Harbor citizen who found it beached on West Beach Monday afternoon. The Whidbey Stranding Network is still trying to locate the second porpoise.

A total of nine porpoise have stranded in the Strait of Juan de Fuca region during the past week, coincidental with Navy Sonar Exercises off San Juan Island on May 5th, and during the last week of April. It is not known at this time if the deaths are related to the sonar exercises, but as with any stranding, and especially an event of multiple strandings such as this, specimens will be sent to NMFS for examination to determine cause of death.

Orca Network and the Island County Beach Watchers, who partner in the Whidbey Marine Mammal Stranding Network under the auspices of the National Marine Fisheries Service, ask that anyone finding a stranded marine mammal immediately call:

  • Orca Network: 360.678.3451 or 1.866.ORCANET
  • Beach Watchers: 360.679.7391

Porpoises deaths studied for connection to sonar incident

posted 05/14/03
Necropsies will be performed on the bodies of several porpoises which washed up recently in the coastal waters of Washington and Canada according to the Center for Whale Research. Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, whose father, Ken Balcomb, runs CWR, told the San Juan County Commissioners testing will be done to determine if the sonar the Navy used for five-hours on May 5, 2003 caused the deaths of the porpoises or if the deaths were just coincidental. Balcomb-Bartok said the whales were subjected to 150 decibels. "That's like a rock concert," he said.

The three county Commissioners will send a letter to the Navy and elected federal officials expressing their concern about the sonar incident and its apparent effect on the killer whales in J-Pod.

US Navy Sonar blasts Pacific Northwest killer whales

By Ken Balcomb
Center for Whale Research

posted 05/12/03
PRESS RELEASE: On 5 May 2003, the US Navy Guided Missile Destroyer Shoup DDG 86 conducted sonar operations for five hours in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in Haro Strait between Vancouver Island, creating one of the most obvious displays of marine mammal harassment that experienced observers have ever seen, anywhere.

The terrorized whales and porpoises in the region could not escape the intense mid-frequency (3 kHz) long duration "pings" from the ship’s SQS 53C sonar; and, several porpoises are reported to have "coincidentally" stranded and died following the sonar event. The carcasses of these mammals have been collected for forensic examination for acoustic pressure trauma (bleeding in ears and brain).

By chance, J pod of 22 killer whales was in Haro Strait at the time of the sonar operations. Observers noted that they abruptly stopped their feeding and gathered in a tight group to swim close to shore at the surface for the duration of the sonar exercise. The sonar "pings" were so powerful (>200 dB re 1 uPa) that they could be heard in air by visitors along the shoreline of San Juan Island.

The US Navy is seeking exemption from the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act in Congress this week www.orcanetwork.org/news/news.html#govexec, in part because they know they are the most egregious of marine mammal harassers and killers worldwide. Since March 2000, when they chased 17 whales ashore in the Bahamas, the Navy has known that their sonar kills and injures whales at distances well beyond the visual horizon, yet they continue to "exercise" in inappropriate and confined waters killing these innocent animals.

In just this one day that we recently videotaped, the Navy’s lethal sonar adversely impacted every marine mammal within twenty miles of the ship. No wonder marine mammals are stranding and their populations are declining. This is a literal "no-brainer" for the Navy and the whales.

For more information, go to orcanetwork.org/.

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