Whales vs. US Defense? Navy Wants to Use Special Sonar to Track Submarines, but It May Harm Marine Life

Article excerpt

The sound and fury off the coast of Hawaii signifies everything to environmentalists and the United States Navy.

To the Navy, a sonar system designed to detect quiet submarines is a crucial link in America's protection against submarine- launched missiles. To environmentalists, however, the high-volume low- frequency sound waves that travel for long distances are a potentially deadly acoustic assault on sensitive marine animals.

It's an ecological donnybrook that pits whales' tolerance for loud noises against America's national defense. But it is only the latest chapter in an ongoing battle between environmental activists and researchers and the military over the effects of man-made ocean noises on marine life. What concerns environmentalists about new projects like this one is that they would create constant underwater noise - a barrage activists say will have disastrous long-term effects on animals that rely on their sense of hearing for everything from locating food to finding prospective mates. The battle lines were first drawn in 1994 when scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif., announced a plan to broadcast loud sounds at regular intervals from speakers off the coast of Big Sur, Calif., and the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The project, called Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC), used sound waves to check ocean temperatures in an effort to track global warming. Since then, the Navy has tested its sonar, known as Low Frequency Active (LFA) sonar, three times - most recently off Hawaii in February. (Previous phases tested the sonar's effect on gray whales, blue whales, and fin whales off the coast of California.) Designed to study whale reactions to the LFA, the experimental series drew intense criticism many environmental groups. Several of them - including Greenpeace, Earth Island Institute, and the Ocean Mammal Institute - filed a lawsuit to stop the tests, claiming the Navy needed to file an Environmental Impact Statement and give more information about the tests. Civilian scientists involved in the project countered that the tests were designed not to harm whales and, in fact, would not expose whales to sounds louder than their own calls. US federal courts on several occasions ruled in favor of the Navy, but protesters succeeded in shortening the experiments when they hurled themselves into the water near project vessels. The tests' effect While the tests are over for now, the effect on the whales is still unclear. Environmentalists claim that the LFA and ATOC tests have already had disastrous consequences, including four dead humpbacks sighted in California and Hawaii during the ATOC tests. Meanwhile, during the Hawaii LFA tests, Greenpeace Hawaii claimed humpbacks fled the test area, forcing whalewatching tour boats on the Kona Coast to halt operations. And in a March letter to the respected science journal Nature, a team of Greek marine scientists claimed there was a link between whale beachings and LFA tests by NATO in the Mediterranean in May 1996. …


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