Navy’s submarine hunts are too disturbing for marine wildlife – US Court
On Friday, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the Navy violated marine mammal protection laws, reversing a lower court’s decision that allowed military vessels to use a type of loud, low-frequency sonar approved in 2012.
Whales and other marine mammals have incredibly sensitive ears — blue whales can hear frequencies deeper than any human could hear, down to about 14 Hz. Whale songs can travel for thousands miles. It’s important to understand that the ocean is a world of sound, not sight.
In 2004 some 150 to 200 melon-headed whales came churning into Hawaii’s Hanalei Bay like a single mass. It was a strange sight for the Kauai islanders to behold. Melon-headed whales live in the deep ocean, feasting on squid. But here they were, swimming in the shallows no more than 100 feet from shore.
Over the course of July 3 and 4, 2004, volunteers and rescuers shepherded the animals back to sea, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s account of the mass stranding. The Washington Post reported at the time that it was the largest event of its kind in 150 years of Hawaiian history. Almost all of the whales made it back out into the open water. But not the entire pod. A young calf, split off from the rest of the herd, perished the next day.
A year later, 34 whales died when they were stranded at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Three years after that and half the world way, 100 melon-headed whales were again stranded en masse, this time on the shores of Madagascar. The reasons why whales beach themselves are not always clear — strandings have been likened to car crashes in that the causes are myriad but the conclusion is never good. With the melon-headed whales, however, something was different. The events were unusual enough, and involved such large numbers, to prompt scrutiny. In both cases, a prime suspect emerged: sonar.
Prior to the 2004 stranding, the problematic relationship between sonar and whales was thought to be likely, though not exactly clear. Once the melon-headed whales started appearing in the shallows, evidence began to accumulate. The acoustic blasts used to detect objects like submarines in deep water — up to a whopping 200 decibels, as loud as a rocket takeoff — had been used just prior to both strandings, in a U.S. naval exercise near Hawaii and by an Exxon Mobil contractor near Madagascar.
The Court decision, is a major victory, and not only for marine mammals, but for the law that protects them.