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Ocean of Noise 

The Navy's expanded sonar testing operations add to underwater cacophony for sensitive marine life

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No Part Off-Limits

Brandon Southall, a researcher for the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz and former director of the NOAA Fisheries acoustics program, leads an ongoing research project on the impacts of man-made sound, including sonar, on marine mammals, funded in part by the U.S. Navy.

"The Navy pays for a significant amount of marine mammal research in the world," says Southall. "Not all results have been beneficial to the Navy, but they still get published because of the scientific process."

According to Southall, sonar is only a part of the invasive noise throughout the ocean, including the NOAA-designated marine mammal sanctuaries. "Only a small percentage of those areas are 'no take' areas; that is, where no fish can be taken and no ships pass through," explains Southall.

When the Navy operates in confined spaces that resemble underwater canyons, they now take extra precautions, according to Southall. "Evidence suggests that these kinds of conditions are risk factors," says Southall. "When sonar is used in these areas, marine mammals respond in a strong way, because sound bounces back and forth and the animals can't locate where it's coming from." Southall insists that "there is a lot more sound coming from everyday, ordinary ships than from active sonar."

The loudest Navy sonar, reported in nonclassified documents, is 235 decibels. But while the Navy is held to public scrutiny in the permit process, commerce is not. Any business can operate ships emitting 190 decibels with no sound regulation, and ships run constantly back and forth across the oceans. Additionally, noise made by air guns used in oil exploration can be heard across the entire Atlantic.

The InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a body of 10 coastal tribes, opposes the Navy's latest permit and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Council representative Hawk Rosales explains that Navy activities interfere with "ways of life . . . along their ancestral coastline and marine waters," including their relations to other species, such as whales.

"We filed the case because the NMFS wasn't doing its job to protect marine mammals from Navy training exercises," says Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda. "What we are dealing with here is a training range the size of California where there is no part off-limits to the Navy. We recognize that the Navy needs to train someplace," says Mashuda, "but they need to train in places that have the least potential to harm marine mammals. We have asked for the permits to be sent back to the agency with more protections as soon as possible. Right now the only mitigation they have is to post people with binoculars."

Mashuda claims the binocular sighting technique misses certain species, including whales that don't spout and sperm whales, which can dive for up to 35 minutes. "If they're underwater half an hour and you're looking for 15 minutes, you're going to miss them," says Mashuda.

In the Crow's Nest

Peterson's website displays a biting cartoon of a ship with a captain calling up to the crow's nest, "Ahoy! Any marine mammals in sight?" The lookout, unable to see all the whales, dolphins, sea turtles and porpoise swimming underwater, calls back, "No sightings today, sir!" Copy below the captions claims the Navy uses a "17th-century lookout method to locate marine mammals and other sea life before detonating bombs and using sonar."

But the Navy says these critiques are inaccurate and insulting to their highly trained personnel. "Mitigations are more than just binoculars on the deck," says Natsunaga. "People who characterize it that way are giving short shrift to Navy lookouts, who are trained using protocols developed by the NMFS. People need to credit the Navy for caring about whales, too. We're proud of our environmental stewardship. The ocean is where we work and live. We're not wantonly going out there and sonifying the ocean."

Natsunaga explains that the Navy uses passive sonar listening in addition to binocular sightings to check for the presence of marine mammals before engaging in an operation. Passive sonar does not send out sound, but merely receives it. When marine mammals are sighted or heard, the submarine powers down and sonar is shut off.

"Visual observations from ships are one of the few things you can use," says Chip Johnson, a marine scientist for the Navy stationed in San Diego. "Passive acoustic systems are also used but can't always give you a range—they don't work unless the marine mammal is vocalizing. We have highly trained lookouts, very good at detecting things in the water, including periscopes, fishing nets, trees, fishing boats and leisure crafts."

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