U.S. defense and marine safety tough to balance
Over 150 lost, disoriented melon-headed whales swim chaotically in shallow waters off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Nearby, ships of the U.S. Navy and its allies probe the deep with sonar to find submarines of their war-game "enemies."
The mass stranding of whales in Hanalei Bay two summers ago is a scene neither the Navy nor environmentalists want to see repeated this month as 40 ships from eight countries return to the islands for the world's largest international maritime war games.
But that's about all the two sides can agree on.
Environmentalists have sued to stop the Navy from using sonar during this year's Hawaii drills, alleging the service planned inadequate measures to protect whales and dolphins from harm. The military fired back, invoking a legal clause allowing the Navy to push ahead with the maneuvers on national security grounds.
The dispute highlights a deep divide over how to best protect marine mammals and safeguard the nation's defense at the same time.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental group leading the legal battle against the Navy, says whales have stranded and died on beaches around the world after being exposed to high-intensity mid-frequency sonar. In some cases, the whales have bled around the brain and in the ears.
The council further says sonar can interfere with the ability of marine mammals to navigate, avoid predators, find food and care for their young.
Joel Reynolds, council senior attorney, said this shows the Navy has to be especially careful when it uses sonar in Hawaii's biologically rich waters.
"Whales and other marine life should not have to die for practice," Reynolds said. "Of course the Navy needs to train, and our lawsuit doesn't seek to prevent them from training. Our goal is simply to require them to incorporate a series of common-sense measures."
The Navy acknowledges sonar can hurt, even kill, whales, as when at least 16 whales and two dolphins beached themselves in the Bahamas in 2000.
Eight of those whales died, showing hemorrhaging around their brains and ear bones, possibly because they were exposed to loud noise.
But the Navy notes many factors cause marine mammals to become stranded, including pollution, disease, starvation and collisions with ships.
Officers further point out the Navy has been using sonar around the Hawaiian islands for a half century without any marine mammal strandings attributable to the underwater noise.
That is, of course, if you don't believe naval sonar encouraged whales to rush into Hanalei Bay on July 3, 2004, during the last Rim of the Pacific exercises.
An April report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said naval sonar may have prompted the normally deep-water-dwelling melon-headed whales to seek refuge in Hanalei Bay. But the report's authors were unable to fault the sonar for sure.
The Navy says no evidence from that incident conclusively blames sonar.
Even so, the Navy has agreed to steps -- like aerial surveys for marine mammals before and after ships turn on their sonar -- to protect the animals during this month's drills.
Sailors will also restrict sonar use to certain geographic areas and shut off their sonar when marine mammals are spotted nearby.
"We need to balance what we've got to do from the standpoint of military training and readiness and exercises with our commitment to environmental protections and safeguards," said Capt. Matt Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
The Navy says it must practice hunting submarines in nearshore waters because that's the type of environment where it most likely will face an emerging threat: quiet, increasingly advanced diesel-electric submarines being bought or built by North Korea, Iran, China and other countries.
This month's exercises off Hawaii, meanwhile, are especially important for the Americans because they will be able to practice against diesel submarines brought by the Australians, Japanese and South Koreans.
The U.S. Navy has only nuclear-powered submarines. And while these are better suited to traveling long distances in the open ocean as U.S. military missions often require, it means Americans need to rely on allies when they want to train against diesel subs.
Adm. Gary Roughead, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, said the marine mammal protective measures would allow his sailors to learn and polish their skills while protecting the marine environment at the same time.
If the restrictions got much tighter, however, he said the Navy's ability to train its fleet would decline.
"They are perishable skills," Roughead said. "It's really an art form that you have to continue to practice."
Environmentalists say the Navy's protective measures aren't good enough.
Reynolds said the Navy should turn down its sonar power at night because sailors won't be able to see nearby marine mammals. He said the Navy should also fly more survey flights before, during and after using sonar.
Scientists say the divergent views don't surprise them because there aren't enough studies on the topic. Underwater sounds appear to affect whale species differently, though experts don't know why.
Paul Nachtigall, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said researchers have done very few, if any, controlled experiments on how wild animals responded to sound in the ocean.
"If there are basic differences of opinion, and you don't have scientific fact like I've been advocating, how can you come to consensus?" Nachtigall asked.
"It's upsetting to me that we don't know more. And we really ought to know more."