Monday, December 14, 1998

Whale study
might be blocked
by state rules

The $430,000 for the research
has been set aside to recover a
28-mile-long ocean cable

By Helen Altonn


A marine mammal research program planned for the humpback whale season could be stymied by state procedural requirements.

Scientists had hoped to use $430,000 remaining from the Acoustical Thermometry of Ocean Climate experiments to advance their knowledge of whales.

That money had been set aside to recover a 28-mile-long cable installed on the ocean floor off Kauai for the ATOC program, a controversial study of global warming.

A state conservation district use permit granted for the project three years ago required removal of the cable and the sound source used for the experiments.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, leading the ATOC program, asked the state Board of Land and Natural Resources in September to modify the permit to leave the cable in place so the money could be used for research instead.

But a supplemental environmental statement and a new permit are needed to do that, said the land staff and State Deputy Attorney General Linnel Nishioka.

Scripps said in February 1996 it would remove the cable within six months after the three-year project ends, Nishioka said. "From three years to forever is a significant change." People should have an opportunity to comment on it, she said.

Land planner Tom Eisen said the land board approved an extension of the ATOC permit from February 1999 to October 1999 to continue research.

But unless there is an environmental assessment and a new permit, he said the cable will have to be removed by April 2000.

The scientists point out that thousands of miles of cables have been left in the ocean because recovering them does more damage to the ecosystem than leaving them.

"There are lots of cables all around," Eisen acknowledged, adding that normally they don't have to be removed. In ATOC's case, he said, "That was a very unique condition put on just to mitigate a lot of public concerns about the project."

The potential impacts of leaving or removing the cable were never addressed because "it is purely a procedural thing," he said. "It goes against their representations. We wanted public input, given how controversial the project has been...

"If they had given themselves more time, I think things could have worked out more favorably," Eisen said.

Peter Worcester, principal investigator for ATOC at Scripps, said the request to use the money for more marine mammal research rather than yank out the cable "seemed to be a win-win situation. We're all very disappointed."

He said he intends to begin an environmental review process to determine if it would be appropriate to continue transmitting off Kauai while making plans to recover the cable.

If the environmental review turns out positively, he said he will seek permits. But he expects the process to take nearly a year and the ATOC grant ends Dec. 31, 1999.

Joe Mobley, lead scientist for the University of Hawaii portion of the ATOC marine mammal research program, noted that the last EIS cost about $250,000, which would cut funds for research in half.

But time is more critical, the UH-West Oahu psychology professor pointed out. With most humpbacks expected to arrive next month, he said, "We decided we were dead in the water.

"What we stood to gain in increased understanding of marine mammal behavior is lost now," Mobley said. "Ultimately they (DLNR) deferred to the concern of folks that the ATOC people were going to sneak around and use the system."

Worcester said they would have disconnected the amplifier from the cable and had that verified by the DLNR or the Pacific Missile Range to alleviate concerns.

The ATOC experiments involve generating low-frequency booming sounds from loudspeakers off Kauai and California. Listening devices around the Pacific record how fast the sounds travel, which indicates water temperature because sound travels faster in warmer water.

Environmental groups protested that the noise would harm marine animals but scientists said studies have shown the sounds have no significant biological effects on the animals. Mobley said humpback whales remained under water 3 to 5 percent longer when the sounds were on. Other subtle effects were observed but no serious changes in patterns of previous years, he said.

Mobley has done aerial surveys since 1993 to collect data on whales, dolphins and other marine animals around the Hawaiian Islands.

He said a portion of the $430,000 would have been used for aerial surveys to determine if whales are coming back in the same numbers as they did before the ATOC studies.

Researchers planned to put a series of underwater hydrophones in key locations around the islands to map ambient background ocean noise and determine if underwater sounds can be used to assess animal populations, Mobley said.

"The irony of it is, the very question environmentalists want to know cannot be addressed now because of controversy about the project," he said.

"This will be my first year in nine years (starting before ATOC) where I won't be doing field work with whales."

Despite ATOC's initial problems with environmental challenges, Worcester said the experiment was better than scientists hoped for monitoring ocean temperatures.

"It turned out that we can measure travel times, which translates to temperatures, very precisely. It is very remarkable."

The scientists compared their findings with satellite data, which measures height of the sea surface as an indication of ocean temperature.

As the ocean warms up, it expands and the surface rises, so there is a strong correlation between the height of the sea surface and temperature, Worcester said. But salinity, currents and other factors also affect height, he said.

"Our hope is to combine our data with satellite data to keep track of how the ocean is changing."

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