US Navy Sonar Causes Lethal Injury to Whales and Dolphins


photo by Gillfoto/Wikimedia Commons

The US Navy estimates it will inflict lethal harm to 33 million marine mammals over a five year period due to sonar use in military exercises, and seeks permission to do so from the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS). The NMFS has indicated they will approve the request, but by law must allow for public comment before they issue a final decision. The NMFS is the agency charged with upholding the Marine Mammals Protections Act, and any “takings,” that is, damage and death to marine mammals, must be approved by them. The public can comment until March 11th.

Whales and other marine mammals depend upon sound to locate other pod members, to find food, and to navigate in the sea. Without the ability to hear, they die. Most instances of whales and dolphins beaching themselves can be traced back to fatal harm caused them by sonar and other man-made sub-marine sounds. Loud sonar blasts cause hemorrhaging within the mammal’s cranium, hearing loss, and other tissue damage.

The US Navy has long acknowledged that sonar harms and kills marine mammals, but in May 2012, issued a report admitting to far greater damage than previously thought. The Navy has asked for and received permission to “take” (kill or harm) a total of 33 million marine mammals over the course of five years, a number most environmental organizations consider staggering. As a New York Times editorial put it:

Perhaps most alarming is the Navy’s conclusion — after an exhaustive list of potential injuries and the uncertainties involved in estimating them — that “impacts on marine mammal species and stocks would be negligible.” This is wishful thinking, at best.

The Navy has a duty to perform training operations to maintain readiness of the fleet, but, according to Whale and Dolphin Watch, much of the projected harm can be mitigated by using different technologies, such as satellite imaging. They posit that the entrenched interests of those invested in sonar keep the Navy from updating technologies. Other groups say simply refraining from sonar use in areas known to be populated with marine mammals, along with other common sense guidelines, will lessen harm. Environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have sued the Navy asking for more intelligent and humane protections when utilizing sonar in a case that went to the US Supreme Court. Among the NRDC’s requests were these:

  • Refrain from using sonar within 12 nautical miles of the California coast and in certain vulnerable whale habitats.

  • Stop using sonar when marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards of a sonar-emitting vessel.

  • Power down sonar by 6 decibles during “surface ducting” conditions. (Surface ducts are areas in the water where sound waves can be channeled, resulting in more intense exposure for whales.)

  • Keep a watch out for whales from the air and delay exercises when they’re within range.

In 2008 the Supreme Court ruled that the military’s interests coincided more with the public interests than did the preservation of marine life.

Whale and Dolphin Watch has a link on their site for a SignOn petition, with ways to spread the word through social media. But the comments that will count most need to go to the NMFS on the public record before Monday, March 11th.


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