Opinion

Smarten up naval sonar to save the whales

Obama can silence harmful echoes from the Bush administration.

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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.

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.

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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."

Nor, as the Navy has argued, is sonar's impact a necessary consequence of securing our national defense. Most of the harm to marine mammals authorized by the Bush administration could be avoided by the use of common sense safeguards, many of which the Navy has used in past training exercises without apparent problem.

Simple steps such as avoiding sensitive areas like marine sanctuaries, critical habitats, and feeding or breeding grounds; adopting adequate monitoring and safety zones around the sonar device; powering down in ocean conditions of particular acoustic risk; and implementing ship based, aerial, and underwater techniques to monitor when marine mammals are present enable a protective response.

But for all of the recent proposed sonar training, the Navy has refused to implement any of this mitigation, instead proposing half-measures dismissed by the federal courts as "woefully inadequate and ineffectual."

During the past decade, the courts have been the only effective line of defense against the Navy's needlessly dangerous sonar training, but litigation is piecemeal.

A more effective, more comprehensive political response may now be possible. And given the geographic reach of the proposed sonar training and the Navy's own predictions of harm, such a response may be the only way to counter what amounts to an astonishing acoustic assault on marine life along all our coasts.

New leadership is already in place at NOAA. New leadership, we hope, will soon be coming to the US Navy. Instead of the Bush administration's last-minute attack on whales and other marine life, the new administration should require a uniform protocol of effective safeguards for all Navy sonar training that would prevent the needless infliction of harm.

We urge NOAA to move quickly and forcefully to exercise its authority – and fulfill its responsibility – to protect our oceans.

Jean-Michel Cousteau is founder and president of Ocean Futures Society in Santa Barbara, Calif. Joel R. Reynolds is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. (NRDC has been involved with litigation against the Navy for a number of years.)

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