The U.S. Navy has developed a policy against using active sonar
during training exercises in Puget Sound, but the Canadian Navy has
no such policy — as we learned this week when loud pings were heard
around the San Juan Islands.
After Monday’s incident, whale advocates were in an uproar over
concern for killer whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.
Jeanne Hyde was the first to raise the alarm and later placed a
sample of the sound on her blog,
“Whale of a Porpose.”
Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council railed
against the Canadians’ use of sonar in his blog on
“The simple fact is that these waters should not be used for
sonar training. Period. Even the U.S. Navy — which has thus far
refused to protect marine mammal habitat anywhere else on the west
coast — has effectively put the area off-limits to sonar use.
“NRDC will appeal to both the Canadian and U.S. governments to
ensure that this patently dangerous activity does not happen in
this place again.”
The U.S. Navy policy against sonar use during training was
solidly confirmed in 2009, when the National Marine Fisheries
Service issued a permit for the Navy to use sonar off Washington’s
coast. The permit did not include inland waterways.
When I inquired about this, Navy officials confirmed that they
never requested authorization for training in waters east of Cape
Flattery. For details, check out the story I wrote for the
Kitsap Sun, July 29, 2009.
Contrary to some beliefs, the Navy did not say it would never
use sonar in inland waters under any circumstances. In fact, in
April of 2009, the USS San Francisco, a fast-attack submarine, left
Bremerton after a refit and conducted “required training dives,”
including the use of sonar that was reported as unusually intense.
Kitsap Sun, April 10, 2009.
How did that happen? The federal permit, according to the Navy,
makes an exception for sonar related to “safety and navigation;
testing; maintenance; and research, development, test and
The San Francisco incident fell under “safety and navigation,”
according to Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray.
I’m not sure whether the Navy has ever answered the question of
how it intends to address potential harm to marine mammals when
sonar is used outside approved testing ranges, for which
environmental reviews have been conducted. Meanwhile, a coalition
of environmental groups has sued NMFS for failing to protect marine
mammals within testing ranges along the West Coast. Check out the
And so we return to this week’s incident with the Canadian Navy,
which has no restrictions on where sonar can be used in training
exercises, although the Navy follows a written procedure designed
to protect marine mammals, according to Lt. Diane Larose of the
Royal Canadian Navy. Download
the procedure here.
That policy was followed early Monday morning when the Canadian
frigate HMCS Ottawa deployed sonar in Haro Strait on the Canadian
side of the border, Larose told me. The protection measures, said
to be consistent with those of other NATO navies, include watching
(with night-vision equipment if necessary), listening with passive
sonar and other gear, and searching with airplanes, helicopters or
submarines, if available.
It would be interesting to conduct a test to determine if these
precautions really work. Can sentries aboard a ship find and
identify a few killer whales in the dark across miles of water
where islands may impede visual sightings? If not, then someone
needs to rethink these procedures, because these are the conditions
that were present on Monday when the Ottawa was using its
Scott Veirs, who helps maintain the Salish Sea Hydrophone
Network, pieced together information from Monday’s incident with
the help of Jason Wood, research associate with The Whale Museum.
Here’s a summary of the analysis on his blog
“Below are the compressed (mp3) recordings and coarse
spectrograms of the sounds that were auto-detected this morning.
They begin with a series of low frequency sounds and echoes that
may have been from an impulsive source, like a detonation or
explosion. Then the series of high-frequency pings occurs between
4:42:50 and 5:08:17 at three network locations: Lime Kiln (13
pings), Port Townsend (1), and Orcasound (1).
“While we are not yet sure if pings were detected at Neah Bay or
on the NEPTUNE Canada hydrophones located near the entrance to the
Strait of Juan de Fuca, it appears that the sonar ensonified a
good portion of the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca and southern
Haro Strait.” (Emphasis added by me.)
Before the end of that same day, killer whales could be heard on
hydrophones in the area and were later identified as our local K
and L pods, according to reports made to Orca
Network. The proximity of the whales to the exercise was
“It would have been more comforting if we had not seen them for
a couple of weeks,” Scott noted.
The question on everyone’s mind relates to potential injury to
killer whales and other marine mammals from the intense sound of
sonar pings. During the 2003 incident with the USS Shoup, killer
whale researchers in the area reported J pod fleeing the sound in a
confused pattern, though Navy biologists reviewing the video denied
that the orcas were acting unusual.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research reviews that
incident on a video for
Earthjustice. Equally revealing but with less commentary is the
raw video of the
Studies are ongoing to consider the effect of sonar on a variety
of marine mammals, but Scott Veirs points out that Navy’s sonar is
most powerful at a frequency of about 7 kilohertz, which is within
the sensitive part of a killer whale’s hearing range — “not the
most sensitive, but close to it,” he told me.
“Mid-frequency sonar is a bit of a red flag, because the
frequency overlap is really quite complete,” he said.
I was wondering whether the sonar pings heard Monday in Puget
Sound were of any concern to the Canadian Navy. I shouldn’t have
expected any introspection. Lt. Larose pointed out that nobody has
reported seeing any marine mammals in the area at the time.
Will the Canadian Navy reconsider its policy in light of the
U.S. Navy’s policy against training with sonar in Puget Sound? I
posed the question and got this response from Larose:
“The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) takes its role as environmental
steward very seriously. The RCN’s Marine Mammal Mitigation Policy
is reviewed annually to ensure that it reflects current scientific
data, the capacities of Royal Canadian Navy equipment and
environmental concerns. It is applicable to all Canadian military
vessel wherever they may operate.
“Sonars found on board Canadian ships, submarines, and maritime
aircraft, are different from that of our allies and therefore call
for country specific mitigation policy.”
For years, more than a few marine mammal experts have been
calling on the U.S. Navy to use its network of hydrophones to track
endangered killer whales and other vulnerable species. It’s not
enough, they say, for the Navy to post a lookout during training
exercises when the Navy’s listening buoys have the potential of
knowing with some precision where the whales are.
Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth,
says the Navy spends plenty of money filtering out biological
sounds to detect the sounds of enemy ships. Similar algorithms
could inform us when marine mammals pass within hearing range of
“We’ve met with at least three admirals through the years to
present them with explicit proposals,” Fred said. “They never said
‘no,’ but they never gave us an answer.
“Now that they are asking for permits from NOAA, they should be
willing to make an obligation to help advance our understanding of
the whales. The Navy knows this domain better than anybody. They
are the best listeners on the planet.”
The Navy has been requesting and receiving “take” permits from
NMFS with not much more mitigation that putting someone up on deck
to look for marine mammals, Fred said, expressing his ongoing
He added, “It’s about time that the Navy stop asking for ‘takes’
and start finding ways of giving.”
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