Sonic War on Hawaiian Humpbacks

Following secret field tests of their ear-splittingly loud new antisubmarine device, the US Navy was asked, "What effect is your testing of Low-Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) having on whales?" Instead of following the precautionary principle and stopping the transmissions, whale researchers working for the Navy responded by cooking up a study to find out at what level of sound whales exhibit distress. The Navy first targeted migrating gray and foraging blue whales off the coast of California. For the third phase, they went after one of the most sensitive population of whales in the world: humpback whales in the middle of their calving and breeding season off the west coast of the big island of Hawaii.

Starting on the last day of February and extending through the month of March, the researchers cruised up and down about 10 miles off the Kona coast looking for whales. Once one was found, the ship's computers aimed a blast of sound directly at the whale, hitting the animal with 125 decibels (permanent hearing loss in people begins at 130 db.) If no response was noted, the sonar array towed by the ship was cranked up to 135, then 145, then 155 decibels. If the whale still didn't respond, the boom box volume could be spun up to an unbelievably loud 215 decibels upon permission from U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Even this level pales before the 235 decibels the LFAS system will emit almost constantly if deployed as planned on four Navy ships under construction. Their job will be to blast every nook and cranny of the world's oceans in search of super-quiet diesel electric submarines.

The Navy and researchers did not have a good time in Hawaii, dogged almost continually by six legal challenges and activists swimming near their vessel. Because the protocol for the experiment called for the tests to stop if human swimmers were within five miles, the Animal Welfare Institute organized boats and volunteers to keep up a presence in the water. After four weeks of trying to squeeze in transmissions between swimmers (only about 300 out of an intended 600-800 transmissions were accomplished), the research ship left the area two weeks early, having driven away most of their cetacean guinea pigs.

Now the fight against the US Navy's willingness to destroy the living oceans in order to find illusory enemies moves to the next phases: stopping the deployment of the LFAS system, demanding that the US government weigh harm vs benefit to test subjects before granting scientific permits, and urging the IWC to require member states to seek permission before conducting a directed take of endangered species within a critical calving area.

 

International Marine Mammal Project
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415/788-3666
or fax 415/788-7324
marinemammal@earthisland.org