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Smarten up naval sonar to save the whales

Obama can silence harmful echoes from the Bush administration.

By Jean-Michel Cousteau, Joel R. Reynolds / April 2, 2009

Santa Barbara, Calif; and Los Angeles

The Bush administration may be gone, but whales and other marine life along our coasts will be hearing from it for years to come – literally.

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On its way out of town, Bush's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Navy released a series of regulations that, during the next five years, could cause environmental harm on a staggering scale. But by acting decisively, the Obama administration can prevent it.

The regulations allow approximately 11.7 million instances of harassment, injury, or even death (the legal term is "take") to marine mammals by exposing them to high-intensity military sonar training in coastal waters around the United States. These estimates – the Navy's own – include 9.7 million takes along the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico; 630,000 off the coast of southern California; 650,000 along the coast of Washington and Oregon; 140,000 in Hawaii; and another 500,000 off the coast of Florida.

Sonar exposure is not, as the Navy suggests, a mere matter of annoyance to whales and dolphins. In fact, the harm ranges from significant disturbance to important behaviors – feeding, breeding, migrating, communicating, finding mates – to hearing damage and even mass stranding and death.

At risk are not only some of the most vulnerable whale populations on Earth – including the last remaining 300 North Atlantic right whales and the 83 critically endangered southern resident killer whales off the Washington coast – but the very fabric of life among species that, over eons in the dark ocean, have evolved to depend on sound as we depend on sight. According to government scientists, the "loss of even a single individual right whale may contribute to the extinction of the species."

In recent decades, a growing number of mass whale mortalities around the world have occurred in the shadow of military sonar training, in coastal waters as diverse as the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, Greece, North Carolina, Hawaii, Washington State, and many others. According to scientists – including the Navy's own consultants – there is no longer any doubt that sonar kills whales, whether by stranding or massive internal hemorrhaging – akin to what human divers experience as the "bends."