US Navy warfare
training zone could be the death of Fundy's whales
of navy sonar correlated with stranding of about 50 whales from
OTTAWA - Powerful
military technology meant to protect U.S. soil and citizens from silent,
shadowy threats lurking under the Atlantic will be lethal to the 300 remaining
endangered right whales that summer in the Bay of Fundy, warns one of the
largest environmental organizations in the U.S.
Navy counters that the warning is based on distortions and exaggerations of the
science about sonar's effect on marine mammals.
environmental group Natural Re sources Defense Council claims sonar can kill
whales by causing internal bleeding, mass beachings and even a form of "the
bends" that can kill scuba divers who surface too quickly.
At issue is the navy's intention to create a new undersea
warfare training zone off North Carolina's Cape Hatteras start ing in 2012, now
undergoing an environmental assessment.
square nautical miles, the zone would be equipped with undersea cables and
sonar buoys to receive and transmit extremely loud sounds to expose "enemy"
subs as ship, submarine and aircraft crews train in anti-submarine detection
Although a long way from the Bay of Fundy,
the training site is either smack dab along the migration route the whales take
each year to and from their calving -grounds (says the environmental group) or
further offshore and no threat (says the navy).
dispute pits two sophisticated adversaries making conflicting claims in a
battle for public opinion over sonar and the whales.
the world's largest navy, is determined to train a generation of sailors to
detect the latest ultra-quiet small diesel submarines that a navy spokesman
said could conceivably become a platform for an attack by even a small hostile
state or terrorists who somehow get hold of one. "
People say to
me, `Al-Qaida doesn't have -a navy, and I tell them, `They didn't have an air
force either, but they still managed to use planes to bring down the Twin
Towers and boats to attack the USS Cole and kill 17 sailors,"' said Jim
Brantley of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
The training site
was selected in part because a relatively shallow, near-coastal environment is
precisely what navy crews need to create realistic conditions.
"I was a sonar man in the U.S. Navy for 21 years," said
Jene Nissen, now a civilian environmental programs acoustic analyst working for
the navy. "And it's essential to get this training in these kinds of waters -
the noisiest, most difficult, most dangerous waters you can work in."
Pitted against the navy is the Natural Resources Defense
Council, a national environmental group with tens of millions of dollars in
resources and a staff of dozens of lawyers, scientists and activists.
The NRDC, whose website page devoted to the threat sonar
poses to whales includes video narrated by celebrity environmentalist Pierce
Brosnan, the urbane British actor who played James Bond, has gone to court to
stop the navy from using sonar off the California coast in order to protect
The NRDC boasts of leading a coalition
that forced the navy to restrict its use of one form of sonar in 2003.
Just this August, a California court issued a preliminary
injunction stopping the navy from using one form of sonar in training exercises
scheduled for some of the richest marine habitat in the country.
The judge's decision noted that the navy's own analysis
had found the exercises "will cause widespread harm" to five species of
endangered whales and characterized the navy's proposed mitigation measures as
It was not the first court
victory. Last year, the navy had to suddenly adopt several protective measures
with ships from several nations poised off Hawaii for exercises using sonar.
Sonar itself has been around for decades, but its intense
and frequent use in a concentrated zone close to the whales' annual migration
route will lead to mass teachings of whales confused or injured after being
bombarded by sound, argues the NRDC.
One apparent use of
hyperbole in a March 2006 Mother Jones magazine article referred to navy sonar
leaving whales "literally shaken apart by the intense sound, without citing a
source supporting that
"There's no evidence to support
that, countered the navy's Nissen.
The group links
several mass strandings to the recent use of sonar near the whales.
One set of strandings, (strandings occur when marine
mammals or sea turtles swim or float into shore and become beached or stuck in
shallow water) was near Cape Hatteras, in January 2005. Over one weekend, 36
whales from three species - none of them right whales - died. The fact they
were of different species itself made the event "highly unusual; said
investigators with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The day the strandings began, several navy ships had been
conducting exercises off North Carolina's Outer Banks.
The NOAA report on that stranding concluded "the
association between the naval sonar activity and the location and timing of the
event could be a causal rather than a coincidental relationship. However, evi
dence supporting a definitive association is lacking."
While the navy does admit sonar has been a contributing
factor in some whale deaths, it maintains sonar is exaggerated as a cause when
compared to other factors.
Worldwide naval use of active
sonar has been correlated with the stranding of approximately 50 whales during
the 10 year period from 1996-2006, says a navy fact sheet. This equates to less
than one-quarter of 1 per cent of the more than 3,500 strandings that occur
each year on U.S. shores.
The North Atlantic right whale
is one of the world's most endangered large whale species.
The pregnant females migrate south from the Bay of Fundy,
Gulf of Maine and Cape Cod Bay each fall to give birth in warm waters off the
southern U.S. Their . route takes them along sh lanes and fishing grounds where
t r isk being hit by ships and entangled in fishing gear, which are among their
leading causes of death. In the Bay of Fundy, researchers have worked with
fishing groups to mini mize the risk of entanglements with fish ing gear while
a few years ago the Coast Guard and the shipping industry worked together to
shift shipping lanes to avoid right whale feeding grounds and lessen the
frequency of collisions.