Naval sonar has been proven by researchers to be fatal to whales as the sound emitted by sonar is so intense that marine mammals will swim hundreds of miles to avoid it, dive deep into the abyss, rapidly ascend or even beach themselves to flee from the sounds that are literally unbearable to them.
In a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. , a team of NOAA and academic scientist examined eight stranding events of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Mariana Archipelago since 2007. The research discovered that three of the strandings occurred either during or within six days of naval anti-submarine sonar operations.
Local biologists have been recording marine mammal strandings in the Mariana Archipelago for more than 25 years yet no records of beaked whale strandings occurred until 2007, when a single animal was stranded on Guam. Since 2007, one or more Cuvier’s beaked whales have stranded on Guam on seven different occasions and on Saipon once.
The results one of the study were able to pinpoint that some of the deaths are being caused by the sonar being so strong, it is causing the animals to rise too quickly to the surface trying to avoid the sonar, resulting in decompression sickness and their eventual death.
Decompression sickness is a disorder commonly found in divers in which nitrogen dissolved in the blood and tissues by high pressure forms bubbles as pressure decreases. It typically occurs with humans when they have to make a rapid assent to the surface while diving or improperly manage their assent.
This evidence adds onto previous surveys published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, where they discovered that the sound emitted by sonar is so intense that marine mammals will swim hundreds of miles, dive deep into the abyss or even beach themselves to flee from the sounds that are literally unbearable to them.
In particular, beaked whales are one of the marine mammals that are often found beached due to sonar testing. Prior to the 1960s, beaked whale strandings were extremely rare. But once the 60s rolled around, the Navy started to use mid-frequency active sonar (MFAS) to detect submarines.
And from the 60s onwards, whales washing up on beachings became a very common occurrence. The paper also published a summary of what was discussed at a 2017 meeting of beaked whale experts in the Canary Islands and revealed that sonar distresses beaked whales so often that the marine mammals ends up with nitrogen bubbles in their blood very similar to what divers would call decompression sickness or the bends. The nitrogen can cause hemorrhaging and damage to whales vital organs.
The big question that was brought up was how an animal that lives in the ocean and is adapted to perform deep water dives for hours at a time can obtain decompression sickness? Well simply, the sonar is so powerful, the animals dive deep too quickly or surface too quickly causing the sickness.
What is more astonishing though is that beaked whales are the world record holders for deepest and longest dives among marine mammals at 9816 feet and 137.5 minutes, respectively. With the ability to be one of the deepest marine mammal divers in the world, the evidence against sonar and how damaging it is to marine life continues to grow.
Beaked whales are particularly sensitive to mid-frequency active sonar which is the type of sonar is used by navies to detect and locate ultra-quiet submarines.
To mitigate the impacts of sonar on beaked whales, we must ban its use in areas where they’re found. A moratorium on the use of MFAS around the Canary Islands in 2004 shows just how well this works – no atypical strandings have been seen since. The researchers urge other countries where sonar is deployed, such as the US, Greece, Italy, and Japan, to follow suit.
This is not the first time nor the last sonar has been called into question. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has successfully challenged the government failure to protect marine wildlife from sonar three times with the most recent time coming in 2016.
The case was brought forward by the NRDC to the court system claiming that the National Marine fisheries Service (NMFS) had illegally approved a permit authorizing the Navy to use its high-intensity long-range sonar, called low-frequency active sonar (or LFA), in more than 70 percent of the world’s oceans.
In its decision, the three-judge panel found that the Fisheries Service had unlawfully ignored reasonable safeguards recommended by the government’s own scientists to reduce or prevent harm from the sonar system, resulting in a “systematic underprotection of marine mammals” throughout “most of the oceans of the world.” Experts had recommended that the Fisheries Service protect the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off of Hawaii, Challenger Bank off of Bermuda, and other areas around the world important to whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals. But the Fisheries Service went ahead and gave the Navy the greenlight to operate its intense sonar in the vast majority of these areas.
Among other things, the court also found that:
- Protecting marine mammal habitat from Navy sonar is “of paramount importance” under the law.
- The Fisheries Service has an independent responsibility to ensure the “least practicable impact on marine mammals” (i.e., the lowest possible level of harm)before giving the Navy – or anyone else – permission to harm these protected species; and that the Fisheries Service must err on the side of overprotection rather than underprotection.
- The Fisheries Service had given “mere lip service” to the requirement to minimize impacts during Navy sonar training.
- The law requires the Fisheries Service to mitigate harm to individual marine mammals and their habitat, rather than ignore its statutory responsibility until species as a whole are threatened.