U.S. NAVY VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
A joint study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Navy is exploring the effect of sonar on marine mammals. Here, Sonar Technician 1st Class Mark Osborne supervises Sonar Technician 2nd Class Randy Loewen, left, and Sonar Technician 3rd Class Roland Stout, right, as they monitor contacts on a Surface Anti Submarine Combat System aboard the USS Momsen off Southern California.
Survey keeps ear on sonar
Findings will be released on how marine mammals respond to tracking devices
Findings from an extensive research project this summer on the effect of sonar on marine mammals will be released in December.
The information gathered from the $400,000 study -- done jointly with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service and the U.S. Navy -- is still being analyzed, said NOAA spokeswoman Connie Barclay.
Barclay also said NOAA scientists are tracking the electronic-monitoring tags placed on deep-diving beaked, pilot, melon-headed and false killer whales. The devices are expected to provide information on the movements of these marine mammals around the Hawaiian Islands.
NOAA said more than 30 marine mammals were tagged with listening and movement sensors during the recently completed Rim of the Pacific naval exercises, which involved 35 ships and six submarines from 10 nations.
The Navy and civilian marine scientists worked from the NOAA research vessel Oscar Eltin Sette and other smaller vessels.
The research team used the RIMPAC exercise to study how the whales responded to midfrequency active sonar used by U.S. and coalition navies to find and track submarines.
Navy biologists helped with the visual surveys, photo identification and tagging of the marine mammals, said Mark Matsunaga, Pacific Fleet spokesman.
Some of the devices recorded "short duration bits of detailed information about how the animals move and the sounds that they make and hear," a NOAA statement said.
Barclay said the study was co-funded by the Navy, whose share amounted to $211,000.
The Navy also conducted aerial and shipboard marine mammal surveys, Matsunaga said.
The research team also included scientists from Cascadia Research Collective, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Duke University, NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, the University of Hawaii and the Whale Research Foundation. The team used satellite-linked and underwater listening tags to measure how the whales feed, interact with another, dive and respond to sounds in their environment.
Barclay said that Brandon Southall, director of NOAA's Ocean Acoustics Program and co-founder of the project, plans to publish a paper on the marine mammals study, which will be discussed at a one-day workshop in December in Washington, D.C.
Vice Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the 3rd Fleet, said before RIMPAC began that the anti-submarine warfare portion of the naval war games would focus on practicing hunting diesel-electric submarines.
Such submarines run on a combination of diesel fuel and electric battery, making them quiet and thus difficult to detect, even with sonar. The Pacific Fleet has made antisubmarine warfare a priority as navies, especially those of China, Iran and North Korea, buy diesel boats. The U.S. Navy's fleet of submarine are all nuclear-powered.
During the monthlong RIMPAC exercise, which ended July 30, the Navy adopted 29 steps to protect marine mammals from sonar, including posting lookouts on ships to spot whales and orders to shut down sonar when whales come within 200 yards.
When a 15-foot Cuvier beaked whale died after stranding itself on a beach on Molokai on July 28, environmentalists blamed it on the Navy.
Navy officials said there was no evidence that sonar caused the death of the whale. NOAA Fisheries Service is waiting for the results of tissue samples taken from the whale that were sent to the mainland for analysis.
The beaching of the whale last month is just a small part of the long-running battle between environmentalists and the Navy.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that would limit the use of midfrequency sonar in naval training exercises off Southern California because of potential harm to marine mammals.
The U.S. Navy League-Honolulu Council, nine retired Navy admirals, naval warfare experts and other civic organizations filed an amicus brief in support of the Navy. The brief refers to two separate incidents in the past two years where a Chinese diesel electric submarine approached a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Taiwan Strait and was within torpedo range of the ship before being detected by the U.S. ships.
The Navy also plans to appeal to the 9th Circuit a similar ruling made by Judge David Ezra in February involving the use of midfrequency sonar in underwater warfare exercises in Hawaii waters by U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups.
The Navy approved an environmental impact statement two months ago for the Hawaii Range Complex, which extends from as far south as Johnston Island and past Midway Atoll to the northwest. The statement notes that in the past 40 years the range has been used, "no known marine mammal strandings directly related to Navy activities have occurred."
Last week the Navy settled a lawsuit with environmentalists over future use of long-range low frequency sonar in the Hawaiian and other coastal areas.