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 “Switchboard”:
“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. See 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 evaluation (RDT&E).”
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 news release by NRDC.
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 sonar.
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 Orca Sound:
“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 disconcerting.
“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.
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 Navy hydrophones.
“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 frustration.
He added, “It’s about time that the Navy stop asking for ‘takes’ and start finding ways of giving.”