• The Publisher’s Notebook •
Sonic Step Forward in Coastal Waters
BY ANNE SOBLE
It has been more than 25 years since the first local calls for restrictions on sonar testing by the U.S. Navy in coastal waters that could adversely affect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals were issued by groups including Malibu’s Save Our Coast, The News and a handful of scientists who spoke out on behalf of marine mammal protection. It ultimately took the persistent pressure of large and well-funded efforts by the National Resources Defense Council to bypass political pressure so stringent that it once questioned the patriotism of those who didn’t think the military should do whatever it wants when it wants, even if endangered species are jeopardized. Last week’s federal court ruling achieved by the NRDC is the most significant win for marine mammal protection to date. The Navy may be considering what to do next, but it finds itself on the wrong side of the arguments again and again. U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles has barred the use of sonar at any time within a 12-mile-wide belt along the coast. Where it can test, the Navy is obligated to spend an hour scanning waters for mammals before starting an exercise to assure none are present. The Navy must watch for whales and dolphins during exercises and suspend activity whenever one is within 2200 yards. The Navy had proposed sonar shutoff at 200 yards, but the judge said that was inadequate. Cooper admonished, “A number of studies indicate that sonar injures marine mammals not only via acoustic harassment, but by panic-induced rapid diving or surfacing, which leads to decompression sickness.” She indicated in her 18-page ruling that the sound waves used in underwater exercises cause injury and death.
There’s a message here for others beside the U.S. Navy. Down Under energy powerhouse Woodside, which hopes to ply local waters with liquefied natural gas vessels, is being criticized for its indifference to the impact of seismic exploration for oil and gas on Australia’s best known blue whale feeding ground at peak season. Environmentalists say the mammals will be subjected to weeks of airgun explosions to map geology under the sea floor. Scientists there second U.S. research that noise can harm marine mammals if it is too close. They cite evidence that blues encountering this noise will shy away and get cut off from the critical food supply that is located in the area. Blue whales, which were nearly wiped out by 20th-century commercial whaling operations, are drawn to the waters where Woodside wants to engage in seismic exploration in large numbers