Navy Admits Whales and Dolphins in Harm's Way

Will naval sonar harm dolphins? Some activists don't want to give the Navy the chance to find out.

Activists are taking to the Internet to protest a United States Navy proposal that one environmental organization has referred to as potentially causing whales "harm of staggering proportions."

The action is in response to the Navy's admission, in two Environmental Impact Assessments filed in May, that the use of active sonar in training and testing exercises off Hawaii and southern California, and off the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico, could potentially unintentionally harm marine mammals a total of 33 million times over five years.

In an email to Discovery News, Zak Smith of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that this includes "nearly 2,000 deaths, nearly 16,000 instances of permanent hearing loss, and over 5 million instances of temporary hearing loss." And remember, these are the Navy's own figures.

The possible impact of active sonar – which is used primarily to hunt for submarines – on marine mammals, and particularly toothed whales, has been a subject of controversy for several years.

Active sonar exercises have been associated with several instances of mass strandings, some of them involving cetaceans that have suffered trauma to their brain or ears.

In an interview with MSNBC, Mark Matsunaga of the Pacific Fleet said that the figures cited by Smith were "worst-case estimates. That's not to say we're going to go out there and hurt them all." The Navy also points out that it has invested heavily in research to study the possible impacts of its sonar and other activities on cetaceans. However, Smith argues that, while there is plenty of naval emphasis on establishing possible impacts, there is relatively little attention paid to mitigating those impacts:

There aren't other government agencies out there proposing activities that will have anywhere near this level of impact on wildlife, much of which is endangered. The Navy seems very proud of the fact that it has conducted such a "comprehensive" (in its opinion) analysis of impacts. But where's the pride in its development of alternatives that allow it to achieve its training and testing needs, while dramatically reducing the impact to whales and dolphins?

HSW: Ultimate Guide to Submarines: Sonar

NRDC is not arguing that the Navy should not be able to deploy active sonar; it is, however, urging the identification of areas of high cetacean density where its use should be prohibited or severely curtailed. Some, however, are going further; MoveOn member Lyndia Storey has started an online petition to end the testing, which at the time of this writing had secured over 230,000 signatures and climbing.

Photograph: Dolphins swim along side the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Henry J. Kaiser (T-AO 187) during an underway replenishment with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Robert Robbins)