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Blasting them out of the water...

"The effective use of sonar is a perishable skill that must be practiced frequently." – US Navy website

“The Navy is not above the law. Protecting the country includes following its laws, not skirting them.” – Marti Townsend of KAHEA

March 25, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

Two decades ago the U. S. Navy starting getting a little nervous about new and quieter diesel-powered submarines that were being designed in the Soviet Union and China. Passive sonar that simply listens for sound probably wouldn't be able to hear these new boats, and it wouldn't show how far away they were if it could hear them.

Active sonar – where you send out a sound wave and wait for echoes to bounce back – provides a far more accurate location at greater distances, but tends to reveal the location of your boat. Navy planners began developing a low-frequency active sonar system called SURTASS LFA Sonar, or LFAS, as a method of locating the new generation of foreign subs long before they could sneak in and launch missiles at American targets.

In very simple terms, LFAS uses a strong blast of sound waves and echo-location equipment that allows you to "see" what's in the ocean far away without being "seen" yourself. The low frequency, high-volume sound is broadcast from a fixed point and has an impact for miles around on every creature with the equivalent of ears. At close range the pressure wave caused by that sound has an effect similar to a high-explosive shock wave at close proximity – strong enough to rupture delicate tissue and damage neural connections in the brain of any living creature exposed.

The Navy and other defenders of LFAS claim that the impact is minimal except in unusual circumstances. Of course, they once claimed that it had no effect at all on marine mammals, but they've had to adjust their position over time to reflect at least a little bit of the reality of increased deaths and injuries to whales and dolphins after many of those tests.

In March, 2000, 17 beaked whales died in the Bahamas when they beached themselves – when they tried to swim out of the water and crawl onto land. They had been exposed to sonar pulses in the 150-160 decibel range that caused hemorrhaging in their ears and brains. The deadly cause-and-effect as described by marine biologist Ken Balcomb was obvious; even the Navy admitted that their use of a mid-frequency sonar device was probably responsible.

A short list of high-profile strandings in the last five years includes eight beaked whales in the Canary Islands who stranded themselves and died four hours after military exercises began in the area; 11 harbor porpoises in Haro Strait, Washington following a sonar test by the U.S.S. Shoup; 37 whales beached themselves and died after Navy vessels on a deep-water training mission off the coast of North Carolina used powerful sonar as part of the exercise.

Hawaii has had at least two clearly linked examples of sonar use and marine mammal strandings. The most obvious came in 2004 when as many as 200 melonheaded whales tried to beach themselves in Kauai’s Hanalei Bay after an LFAS test during a Navy climate study program.

There is a body of research that describes the adverse effects on human divers exposed to ordinary levels of active sonar. Those effects include dizziness, seizures and a loss of memory. The source of that research? The Navy, which conducted those tests and makes now makes certain that its own divers aren't in the water during LFAS tests.

Rear Admiral James Symonds, who directs the Navy's environmental readiness program, has stated publicly that, "The Navy will continue to employ stringent mitigation measures to protect marine mammals during all sonar activities." Adm. Symonds use of the word "protect" is both incorrect and misleading. The Navy is taking active measures to lessen the impact on marine mammals; that's not the same thing as protecting them. The only way to "protect" cetaceans from LFAS blasts is by not firing those blasts at all.

Imagine that you and your friends are strolling down the street in your neighborhood on a nice day, talking story on your way to the local market to pick up a snack. Suddenly an immensely bright light flashes all around you, brighter than any light you've ever experienced. You're immediately blinded in a whiteout; you can't even see your friend standing within arm's length but you can hear him, and you know that he's been blinded, too.

You can tell when the light flash has faded only because the painfully bright whiteness turns to dark gray, almost black, while ghost flashes dance across the darkness in front of your eyes. Your vision doesn't fully return; it fades in and out but your eyes keep burning all the time.

Your friends are in just as bad shape or worse. You can talk to them but everyone is confused, frightened, in some degree of pain. Some of your friends are able to cluster together for support and grope blindly down the street in a pack, but others drift away into the darkness and are gone forever.

All of you are almost helpless in a world full of predators. You try to rest and recover your sight, but you've been damaged beyond repair. With luck, enough vision will return to allow you to hunt for food because in your neighborhood, if you can't feed yourself, you'll starve.

Take out all the references to vision in the story above and replace them with the sense of hearing. Now you have a fair analogy to what dolphins experience when an LFAS blast is set off in their vicinity – except that for dolphins, hearing is a much more critical survival sense than sight is for humans.

Last fall Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said that he didn't want to stop LFAS training because of "unproven theories without any foundation whatsoever" regarding the impact on marine mammals and other forms of cetacean life. The admiral was willing to post whale lookouts on Navy ships and limit sonar use when those lookouts see whales in the water.

After an LFAS blast the Navy certainly should know when whales are nearby. If the echolocation technology is anywhere near as effective as the Navy claims, it would spotlight the presence of whales almost as clearly as it would identify a submarine. A serious effort to track affected whales was possible every time LFAS has been tested, yet for more than a decade the Navy conducted zero studies of the direct effects of their tests to support their claim of minimal impact on cetaceans.

Brandon Southall, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ocean acoustics program, addressed that lack of information last year as he announced a Navy-funded study in the Bahamas designed to decide what type of sonar should be used to minimize harm to creatures that live in the sea.

"We still know almost nothing about the reactions of marine mammals to underwater sound," said Southall. "Our field is very much in its infancy."

When inquiries are held in response to marine mammal injuries linked to sonar use, those investigations usually result in a finding that admits no proof of sonar being the cause, but also admits no explanation for what did cause those strandings, injuries or deaths. Often a statement is issued that lists a half-dozen possible causes, with sonar impacts as one of the bunch.

That, too, is misleading. There are several possible natural causes for ruptured auditory organs in dolphins or a beaching of whales. There is only one unnatural cause – human-produced high volume sound waves. So a mass stranding is either a normal event, or it's not. If all other conditions in the area are normal when a stranding occurs, then the Navy probably isn't to blame. But if they're testing sonar at that time, they are the most likely cause.

If there were just a few incidents linking sonar and beachings, it might be dismissed as a coincidence. A recent Internet search, however, revealed 27 reasonably linked events around the world over the past eight years. That's not coincidence – that's a pattern.

The Navy has also been following another pattern, a relatively recent one used by federal agencies to circumvent federal laws. In 2006 the Defense Department granted
the Navy a six-month exemption from laws protecting marine species so that it could use mid-frequency active sonar in the RIMPAC exercises scheduled for that year. Lawsuits intervened and resulted in the Navy taking extra precautions before they began their potentially deadly exercises.

Two years later the courts are involved once again. Earlier this month Hawai‘i federal district Judge David Ezra ruled that the Navy is violating federal law by not preparing an environmental impact statement for its planned war games in the ocean off Hawai‘i's coasts. He stated that the Navy had failed to analyze reasonable alternatives, failed to notify the public as required by law, and failed to take into account the potential for serious harm that sonar could cause.

The Navy wants to test sonar in during a dozen "Undersea Warfare Exercises" during 2007 and 2008 within the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and near the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. A lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Ocean Mammal Institute, Animal Welfare Institute, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Surfrider Foundation’s Kaua’i chapter led to Ezra's recent ruling.