Friday, April 10, 2009

Update on the Navy Sonar In The San Juan Islands


Throughout the night of April 7th, anyone listening to the hydrophones at Lime Kiln State Park heard 8 uninterrupted hours of underwater voices followed by echoing pings of military sonar every ten minutes.  You can listen to a clip of the recorded exercises by clicking this link, but be sure to TURN DOWN YOUR VOLUME.

According to Dr. Val Veirs, president of The Whale Museum board and professor emeritus of physics at Colorado College, decibel levels of sonar pings recorded off the west side of San Juan Island April 7-8 may have been the same level as sonar pings implicated in the deaths of several beaked whales in the Bahamas in October 2003. “The received levels of the signals at Lime Kiln Lighthouse were about the most intense sounds that the hydrophones there have recorded in the past several years of continuous operation,” he said. "The highest received levels came from sonar pings and were approximately 140 dB re 1 microPascal." This is approximately the same as the most intense sonar signals recorded in May 2003 when the (USS) Shoup transited the waters of Haro Strait. Biologists on the water at the time reported that killer whales seemed to be fleeing from the sound. Since then, Navy ships are required to receive permission from fleet commanders before operating sonar in Puget Sound. That was in 2003.

"The garbled voices we heard today were communications between the submarine and a surface tender," Veirs said. "We estimate that the distance between our hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse and the submarine was in the neighborhood of 10 nautical miles and for our hydrophones to pick up the strong signals that they did, the submarine was emitting sound with source level in the range 175 dB to 225 dB re 1 microPasca1.”

Veirs said the sounds were heard for many miles in a variety of underwater locations — from the east at Whidbey Island to the north of San Juan Island and out toward the ocean in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. And of significant concern was the fact the sonar was taking place where there were reports of Transients, a minke, & 2 gray whales only hours before the episode began.

By 8:00pm on the 8th, Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray confirmed that the fast-attack submarine USS San Francisco, accompanied by a surface ship, was operating its sonar last night as it passed through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The sub was conducting “required training dives” and did not enter Haro Strait, she said. The Navy undertakes precautions to protect marine mammals, she noted.  The full story has been covered locally and throughout the Pacific Northwest- you can click HERE for more details.

This past December, The Navy and several plaintiffs, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the League for Coastal Protection, the Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau, entered into a settlement agreement to resolve a worldwide challenge to the Navy's testing and training with mid-frequency active sonar. The settlement essentially adopts the long range program for environmental analysis and research , forcing the Navy to continue to implement a variety of protective measures in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That agreement does not require any additional mitigation measures. General Counsel for the Navy, Frank Jiminez commented after the settlement, "The Navy welcomes an approach that relies more upon scientific research than litigation."

Just this week, researchers issued a study indicating sonar causes temporary hearing loss in dolphins. Findings show that when the dolphins were exposed to progressively louder pings of mid-frequency sonar up to 203 dBs, neurological data showed the mammal had become deaf, for its brain no longer responded to sound.

While concerns are heightened right now, it is important to stress that the Navy has been proposing a substantial increase in these types of exercises throughout the Pacific Northwest. Plans to expand operations such as adding dummy minefields, scheduling hundreds more training flights and warfare simulations over land and sea, and increasing the use of sonar are scheduled, adding potential threats to endangered and threatened whales and other marine mammals throughout the region.

The Navy says that the pending increases in warfare activities are necessary and their draft environmental impact statement, released Dec. 29, concludes (with no surprise) that expanded training won't harm marine life or the public. But environmental groups, fishermen and some politicians are wary, stating that the military sprang the 1,000-page environmental review of its increased training plan with little notice and has provided only minimal assessment periods or input from residents.

At risk are the southern resident orcas and nine marine mammal species listed as threatened or endangered, including seven whales. And thanks to George Bush and more recently, The Supreme Court, it certainly appears as though the Navy's plans may go completely unchallenged despite the incongruity of the situation at hand. There is hope, however. The comment period, once limited to a couple of weeks between January 27 and mid-February, has now been extended to April 13, 2009, to allow for additional public input. Should you be so inclined, please take a look at the Draft Impact Statement (as ugly as it is) and send your comments to the Government. You can also send an email or fill out a comment form online. 

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