March 2000, 14 rare beaked whales, two minke whales and a dolphin
became stranded within a 25-hour period on the beaches of the Bahamas.
While the dolphin and six of the whales died, ten of the whales were
successfully returned to the sea.
The odd event coincided with the passage of a five-vessel Navy fleet that was conducting tests with a midrange-frequency sonar. The US Navy sonar system tows an underwater speaker array that sends loud noises through the sea in an attempt to pick up echoes that bounce off enemy submarines.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Navy launched a joint investigation of the stranding incident but the Navy stoutly denied that their sonar blasts were implicated in the strandings and deaths. Subsequent observations failed to spot any of the survivors or any other beaked whales that normally inhabit the area.
Despite more than a year and a half of government studies, none of the data or conclusions had been released to the public. Meanwhile, the Navy and NMFS have requested permission to deploy a new and even more powerful sonar.
The Navy’s proposed Low Frequency Active (LFA) sonar will produce one of the loudest undersea noises ever created by humans. The US Navy claims that the LFA sonar will have no adverse effects on whales or other marine life.
On December 18, 2001, Earth Island Institute (EII) sent a Freedom of Information Act letter to NMFS requesting all documents related to the stranding investigations. On December 20, NMFS and the US Navy broke its silence and issued an interim report to the public. This report all but admitted that the Bahamas strandings were caused by the Navy’s sonar.
In carefully worded bureaucratic prose, the investigators declared: “While the precise causal mechanisms of tissue damage [in the dead marine mammals] are unknown, available evidence points to acoustic or impulse trauma.” The report concluded: “The unusual extended use of Navy midrange tactical sonars operating in the area is the most plausible acoustic source.”
Of the four beached whale specimens collected for study, three showed severe tissue damage and bleeding in the inner ear. The fourth showed bleeding around the brain.
EII and other environmental groups are preparing to challenge the Navy’s plan to deploy the new LFA sonar later this year.
What You Can Do For more information about what you can do to oppose the deployment of LFAS, contact IMMP [300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133, (415) 788-3666, firstname.lastname@example.org].
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