The US Navy vs. Nature

Just catching up on the bad news that the National Marine Fisheries Service has signed off on the Navy’s plan to inundate whale and dolphin habitat, otherwise known as the oceans, with harmful sonar:

While the Final Rule is not yet available to review (the website link provided by the agency doesn’t have the Final Rule), it appears from NMFS’ release that it has adopted the course laid out in its Proposed Rule.  There, it found that millions of instances of harm to the area’s whales and dolphins (including habitat abandonment, temporary hearing loss, and in some instances permanent hearing loss, injury to internal organs, and death) constitutes a “negligible impact” to the species harmed.

And once again, NMFS is finding that that the most severe impacts (temporary and permanent hearing loss and death) can be “minimized” by a Navy lookout regime that is wholly inadequate and ineffectual.

Such nonsense would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Scientific research developed over the last five years (the last time NMFS authorized Navy training and testing in the area) shows Navy training and testing activities are harming marine mammals far more than previously known. NRDC recently won a lawsuit against NMFS for ignoring that science when authorizing Navy training and testing in the Pacific Northwest.

This sort of testing and training is mostly a product of Cold War inertia and seems to me detached from strategic reality. Or at least serious strategic analysis. I know the phrase “national security” trumps just about all reasoned analysis. But what foreign threats justify such extensive damage to marine mammals? What increment of security is gained from live training versus simulations? Will we ever start to value other life and habitat on the planet?

Robots And Right Whales

After using cutting-edge technology (for the time) to hunt and slaughter North Atlantic right whales to the brink of extinction, humans are using cutting edge technology to try and save them.

The latest tool in the game is an underwater robot that can hear and find whales, and then transmit their positions in near-real time:

Last month, two 6-foot-long (1.8-meter-long), torpedo-shaped robots from theWoods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts used digital acoustic monitoring equipment to detect 9 North Atlantic right whales(Eubalaena glacialis) in the Gulf of Maine—the first-ever detection of baleen whales from these types of autonomous vehicles.

“Recording the sound creates a spectrogram, which to a scientist is almost like a sheet of music that visually represents the sounds you’re hearing,” explained WHOI researcher Mark Baumgartner.

The gliders process and classify these acoustic signatures, then surface every two hours and transmit evidence of whale calls to shore-based computers while the animals are still nearby. “We can use this information to very quickly draw a circle on the map and say, hey, we know there are whales in this area, let’s be careful about our activities here. The government can then alert mariners and ask them to reduce their speed and post a lookout.”

The effort to save right whales is a battle that pits scientists and conservation groups against all the oceanic intrusions of modern human culture, with its shipping, fishing, and pollution. It is an incredibly close battle, in which single lives count. So every technological wrinkle can make a difference.

U.S. Navy Proposes “Taking” 33 Million Marine Mammals

This is stunning, and a perfect example of how the inertia of stale priorities–especially Cold War-era national security priorities–can take us down some disastrous roads.

From a New York Times editorial:

Between 2014 and 2019, the United States Navy hopes to conduct testing and training exercises in the Atlantic and the Pacific that will involve sonars and explosives of many different kinds.

Over the years, the Navy has been forced to acknowledge what science has clearly demonstrated: noise generated by sonar and underwater detonations can kill marine mammals, like whales and porpoises, and disturb their normal feeding, breeding and migration. In preparing for its upcoming exercises, the Navy has asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for approval to “take” a number of marine mammals — “take” being the broad term for everything from killing these creatures to disturbing their habits.

This all sounds as it should be, with the Navy requesting permission from the agency, as required by various laws protecting marine mammals and endangered species. But the numbers say something else. In its testing areas in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, the Navy estimates that between 2014 and 2019 it will “take” nearly 33 million marine mammals — everything from blue whales to elephant seals.

Most of these creatures will be disturbed in some way but not injured or killed. But the damage could still be considerable. Sound travels much faster through water than it does through air, magnifying its impact, and many of the sounds the Navy plans to generate fall in the frequencies most damaging to marine mammals. More than five million of them may suffer ruptured eardrums and temporary hearing loss, in turn disrupting normal behavioral patterns. As many as 1,800 may be killed outright, either by testing or by ship strikes.

So we’ve got whales versus sonar and naval training. That’s a trade-off that needs a much closer look, as the New York Times urges.