Tag Archives: sonar

Will the Navy extend whale protections
to other regions?

UPDATE, Oct. 2, 2015
The Navy has released its final environmental impact statement on Northwest testing and training operations. The document does not consider an option for avoiding “biologically significant areas” when using sonar or explosives, as in the legal settlement for operations in California and Hawaii. It is yet to be seen whether National Marine Fisheries Service will add new restrictions when issuing permits for incidental “take” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here is the news release (PDF 548 kb).

A legal agreement approved this week to limit the Navy’s use of sonar and explosives in “biologically important areas” of Southern California and Hawaii represents a “sea change” in the Navy’s protection of marine mammals, says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett.
U.S. Navy photo

Encouraged by the cooperative effort to reach an out-of-court settlement with the Navy, Michael said the deal could have implications for future Navy activities in the Northwest and throughout the country.

The NRDC and seven other environmental groups filed suit over Navy plans to train with sonar and explosives in Southern California and Hawaii with no specific geographic limitations. The environmental groups argued that one good way to reduce injury and death to marine mammals is to avoid areas where large numbers of whales and dolphins congregate to feed, socialize and reproduce.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups, saying “it makes no sense” for the Navy to insist that its training exercises require the use every square mile of ocean. The ruling drew the Navy into settlement negotiations.

“This settlement resulted from a constructive good-faith effort on all sides,” Michael Jasny told me by phone. “That, in itself, represents a real change in the way the Navy has interacted with the conservation community. It took litigation to create this window of opportunity to advance policy to be consistent with science.”

Humpback whales, an endangered species. NOAA photo by Dr. Louis M. Herman
Humpback whales, an endangered species.
NOAA photo by Dr. Louis M. Herman

Michael said research by the Navy and other groups has shown how marine mammals are killed and injured by Navy sonar and explosives. As the science has evolved, so have the tools to reduce impacts — such as maps showing where marine mammals hang out, maps that can help the Navy reduce its harm to many species.

Michael said it has been shameful to watch the National Marine Fisheries Service — the agency charged with protecting marine mammals — stand by and issue permits that allow the Navy to do whatever it wants. Now, he added, the negotiations between the Navy and environmental groups provide a blueprint for how NMFS can better live up to its mission of protecting marine mammals.

“Frankly, after years of fighting about these issues, we are seeing folks on both sides very willing to find solutions,” Michael said. “Folks on the Navy side have generally been willing to come to the table. The Navy would not have entered into this agreement if it believed these measures prevented it from achieving their military readiness objective.”

For its part, the Navy tends to downplay the significance of this week’s settlement.

“After a federal court ruled in favor of plaintiffs’ claims, the Navy faced the real possibility that the court would stop critically important training and testing,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. “Instead, NMFS and the Navy negotiated in good faith with the plaintiffs over five months to reach this agreement.”

In a written statement, Knight said the Navy’s existing protective measures are “significant” and the agreement increases restrictions in select areas. Those restrictions will remain in place until the current permit expires on Dec. 24, 2018.

“It is essential that sailors have realistic training at sea that fully prepares them to prevail when and where necessary with equipment that has been thoroughly tested,” Knight said in the statement. “This settlement agreement preserves critically important testing and training.”

In an email, I asked the Navy spokesman how the agreement might translate into special protections in other areas, particularly the Northwest where we know that Navy ships cross paths with many different kinds of whales and dolphins. His answer was somewhat vague.

“The Navy continues to work with NMFS to develop necessary and appropriate measures to protect marine mammals,” he wrote back. “The Navy’s current protective measures afford significant protections to marine mammals. That said, the Navy will not prejudge what measures will be appropriate to address future proposed actions.”

Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species. NOAA photo
Southern Resident killer whale, endangered.
NOAA photo

The Navy is about to complete an environmental impact statement that outlines the effects of its testing and training operations in Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast. In comments on the draft EIS and proposed permit, environmental groups again called attention to the need to restrict operations in places where large numbers of marine mammals can be found. For example, one letter signed by 18 conservation groups addresses the operational details in the Northwest Training and Testing Range:

“Despite the vast geographic extent of the Northwest Training and Testing Study Area, the Navy and NMFS have neither proposed nor adequately considered mitigation to reduce activities in biologically important marine mammal habitat. Virtually all of the mitigation that the Navy and NMFS have proposed for acoustic impacts boils down to a small safety zone around the sonar vessel or impulsive source, maintained primarily with visual monitoring by onboard lookouts, with aid from non-dedicated aircraft (when in the vicinity) and passive monitoring (through vessels’ generic sonar systems).

“The NMFS mitigation scheme disregards the best available science on the ineffectiveness of visual monitoring to prevent impacts on marine mammals. Indeed, the species perhaps most vulnerable to sonar-related injuries, beaked whales, are among the most difficult to detect because of their small size and diving behavior. It has been estimated that in anything stronger than a light breeze, only one in fifty beaked whales surfacing in the direct track line of a ship would be sighted. As the distance approaches 1 kilometer, that number drops to zero. The agency’s reliance on visual observation as the mainstay of its mitigation plan is therefore profoundly insufficient and misplaced.”

Even before this week’s out-of-court settlement, environmental groups were urging the Navy and NMFS to delay completion of the EIS until they fairly evaluate new studies about the effects of sonar, explosives and sound on marine mammals. Measures to protect whales and other animals should include restrictions within biologically important areas, they say.

This week’s out-of-court settlement included limitations on the use of sonar and explosives in the BIAs of Southern California and Hawaii. For details, check out the signed order itself (PDF 1.5 mb) with associated maps, or read the summary in news releases by NRDC and Earthjustice. Not all BIAs that have been identified are getting special protection under the agreement.

Biologically important areas for whales, dolphins and porpoises include places used for reproduction, feeding and migration, along with limited areas occupied by small populations of residents. For a list of identified BIAs, go to NOAA’s Cetacean and Sound Mapping website. For additional details, see NOAA’s news release on the subject.

Michael Jasny said he is encouraged with the Navy’s acknowledgement that it can adequately conduct testing and training exercises while abiding by restrictions in specified geographic areas. He hopes the Navy uses the same logic to protect marine mammals on the East Coast, including Virginia where seismic exploration increases the risk; portions of the Gulf of Mexico; the Gulf of Alaska; the Mariana Islands; and, of course, the Pacific Northwest.

Zak Smith, an NRDC attorney involved with Northwest sonar issues, said the settlement in California and Hawaii should encourage the National Marine Fisheries Service to apply the same mitigation to testing and training to waters in Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska.

“I would hope when they come out with a final rule that the Fisheries Service would have engaged with the kind of management approach that we did in the settlement,” he said. “The Fisheries Service and the Navy should sit down and review biologically significant areas against the Navy’s training and testing needs.”

Clearly, if you read through the comments, environmental groups are dismayed about the Navy’s potential harm to marine mammals and its failure to address the problem:

“The sonar and munitions training contemplated in the Navy’s NWTT Draft Environmental Impact Statement is extensive and details extraordinary harm to the Pacific Northwest’s marine resources…. Even using the Navy and NMFS’s analysis, which substantially understates the potential effects, the activities would cause nearly 250,000 biologically significant impacts on marine mammals along the Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and Southern Alaska coasts each year – more than 1.2 million takes during the 5-year life of a Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take permit.”

I’m not sure it is necessary for me to point out that without significant changes to the Navy’s current plans, we are likely to see another lawsuit over routine testing and training operations.

‘War of the Whales’ : A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz

The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the “cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.

“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a leg up on the Cold War.”

Joshua Horwitz
Joshua Horwitz

As I described yesterday in Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.

Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers, who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint into perspective.

“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these guys are villains. This is a totally different story from ‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”

While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm they were doing.

“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them up that they have gotten a black eye.”

Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh said.

“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign ranges.”

As recently as April, a mass stranding of beaked whales was observed during a training exercise involving the U.S., Greek and Israeli navies. Check out a report by Greek Reporter and a blog post by Michael Jasny of Natural Resources Defense Council.


New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.

“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors inside the Navy.”

One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential harm to marine life.

Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training. They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times when whales are likely to be there.

More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be encountered in real life.

“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he said.

“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it would be a win for everybody,” he added.

Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of energy and its overall carbon footprint.

One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do. “I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine life throughout the world, he said.

“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution that will still be there for a very long time.”

At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us, he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with marine mammals.

Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the 1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which involves putting writers together with characters who have a great story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.

Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version is in the works.

During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money raised through The Ocean Foundation.

By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project and get the book into print.

Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C., with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.

“War of the Whales” can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

‘War of the Whales’ :
My take on the book by Joshua Horwitz

In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals, in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the world.


Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound, has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the whales.

Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book, given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.

I consider this book to be several stories woven into one. First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.

Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology, developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz describes it.

The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed success.

Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to environmental law versus the need for national security. As a result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.

Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters, especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s single-minded approach to national security.

Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013. Photo by Joshua Horwitz
Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013.
Photo by Joshua Horwitz

“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t Ken’s thing.”

The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place, practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and he made the connection to the dead whales.

From there, other researchers and policy officials became involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being swept under the rug.

“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of whales.”

We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.

Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks revealed something about their past and present positions in life.

Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete the book.

“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken, somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had confused notes or what.”

Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story could not be assailed.

Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.

Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials, whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other retired officers.

“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping him understand anti-submarine warfare.

Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in promotional materials for the book:

“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national security and environmental protection. The author presents this very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.

“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the wide reading public in a compelling way.”

In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one especially important to those of us living in an area where the Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine life.

Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and what he learned along the way.

The book can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

Navy analysis shows higher risk to marine mammals

An Associated Press story came out even before the Navy officially published its environmental impact statement in the Federal Register.

The EIS predicted that 200 deaths and 1,600 instances of hearing loss would be suffered by marine mammals in the Navy’s testing and training ranges in Hawaii and California, reported AP writer Audrey McAvoy.

The old Navy analysis, she said, listed injuries or deaths to about 100 marine mammals.

So what caused these increased estimates of injury and death, and what are the implications for the Northwest Training and Testing Range Complex in Washington state?

It turns out that the causes are multiple and the implications many, as I reported in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

In both California-Hawaii and the Northwest, the greatest effects come from the use of sonar and explosives, which the Navy considers essential to proper training and testing. By far, the greatest number of injuries and deaths are to dolphins. But the higher numbers do not mean that the Navy will be changing its operations to a great degree. If one doesn’t read this carefully, the higher numbers are easy to get confused.

Continue reading

Pierside sonar in Everett raises new concerns

Last Monday, Feb. 27, the Navy announced that it was beginning an environmental review that will lead up to a new federal permit involving Navy testing and training efforts in the Northwest, including the use of sonar at pierside in Puget Sound. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27.

Two days later, workers and passengers on the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry heard sonar pings apparently vibrating through the hull loud enough to be heard above the water. Scott Veirs was the first to report this issue in his blog Orcasphere that same day.

Jason Wood, a bioacoustician and research associate at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, made some phone calls and issued this report:

“The crew in the engine room, the captain, and passengers could hear the sonar, at times so loudly that the ferry agent on land could hear the sonar coming up through the ferry while it was at the dock…. The operations center called the Everett Naval base, but got no answers. They also called the Coast Guard. No (Navy) or Coast Guard vessels were reported seen during the sonar incident, other than a naval vessel at the dock in the Everett Navy yard.”

I phoned Sheila Murray, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, who confirmed that the sonar was coming from the USS Shoup, docked at Naval Station Everett. She issued this statement:

“In response to your query, the Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar at Naval Station Everett yesterday. This is routine testing that is a longstanding and ongoing requirement, and is an essential process in preparing a Navy ship to get underway.

“Pierside testing is not continuous, but consists of very brief transmissions of acoustic energy interspersed with longer silent periods.”

The Shoup gained a notorious reputation among some killer whale researchers in 2003, when the intense sound of sonar pings was reported to have caused J pod to flee in a confused pattern. See Water Ways, Feb. 11, for links to videos of that incident.

Sheila also confirmed that this is the kind of “pierside testing” contemplated for the new permit being sought from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a permit that will allow incidental harassment of marine mammals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Such activities will be analyzed in an upcoming environmental impact statement, as I described last week.
Continue reading

So far, sonar has not been linked to orca death

When one of our resident killer whales, L-112, was found dead north of Long Beach on Feb. 11, people wondered immediately if the death might be related to a sonar incident reported a few days before.

Could the two events be linked or could the timing be just a coincidence?

The two-year-old killer whale, L-112, was laid out after death and prepared for a necropsy.
Photo by Cascadia Research

So far, I have been unable to find a ship that was deploying sonar off the coast. At the same time, it appears highly unlikely that L-112 could have been injured by sonar in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then somehow swam out of the strait and down the full length of the Washington coast, succumb to death and then wash up on the beach, all in less than five days.

New evidence may come to light, but for now I would caution that we need to wait for an investigation by the National Marine Fisheries Service and not jump to conclusions over our concerns about sonar.

I discussed the investigation with marine mammal expert Lynne Barre of NMFS. She said the endangered listing of Southern Residents has heightened interest in all killer whale strandings, particularly unusual deaths like that of this 2-year-old female orca.

Lynne seems to confirm the idea that the investigation will proceed along three tracks. First, there’s the physical condition of L-112, as will be determined through careful examinations. Second, there’s the question of where L-112 and her family group were located during the time of injury. And, third, investigators need to locate ships with sonar capabilities and determine whether any of them had been using them in the time period in question.

Jessie Huggins of Cascadia Research and Dyanna Lambourn of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife provided an initial report from the necropsy:

“The whale was moderately decomposed and in good overall body condition. Internal exam revealed significant trauma around the head, chest and right side; at this point the cause of these injuries is unknown.”

Jessie told me that the whale was probably dead two to four days before it washed up on the beach. Trauma to the head was consistent with a blunt force, such as a boat collision or an attack by another large animal. The report mentions the prospects for what researchers may learn from various tissue samples taken from the whale.

Of particular interest to the sonar question is the skull, which has been frozen for the time being. Lynne Barre said it will undergo a CT scan with the hope of obtaining information about the condition of the inner ear and the delicate tissues involved in echolocation. Damage to those tissues could be an indication of trauma from a sound source, but experts will need to account for any decomposition after death. These issues are more complicated than they might seem.

As for the location of L-112 and her family, that probably will never be known unless one of the hydrophones picked up and recorded calls from L pod. Scott Veirs, associated with OrcaSound, has been working tirelessly the past few days to locate any orca sounds that may have been picked up throughout the area.

Scott has noted that killer whale calls consistent with K and L pods were picked up on two hydrophones in the San Juan Islands on Monday, Feb. 6, just 18 hours after a Canadian frigate, the HMCS Ottawa, transmitted loud pings throughout the area (Water Ways, Feb. 11). The two hydrophones picked up the sounds one after the other, suggesting that those whales were heading south toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca (OrcaSound, Feb. 8).

The next day, Tuesday, Feb. 7, some members of K and L pod were spotted in Discovery Bay between Sequim and Port Townsend, according to reports to Orca Network. Nobody can remember seeing Southern Resident killer whales there before. Could they have gone into the bay one day earlier, seeking refuge from the sonar? We may never know.

But if we’re talking about the death of L-112, subsequent IDs of the whales in Discovery Bay suggest that the group probably did not include L-112 or her family. I’m still trying to learn which whales likely would have been with L-112 around the time of her death. But chances are she and her family were out in the ocean when all this excitement was taking place in Puget Sound.

So that leaves the question of whether a ship could have been using sonar off the coast when L-112 was within range. I have been in touch with both U.S. and Canadian Navy public affairs officials, and both have denied that their ships were using sonar in the ocean during this time.

Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy confirms that two sonar-equipped Canadian Navy ships, the HMSC Ottawa and the HMCS Algonquin, were out at sea before entering the Salish Sea at the time of Exercise Pacific Guardian. But neither ship deployed their sonar before reaching the Salish Sea on Feb. 6, when Ottawa’s pinging was picked up on local hydrophones, she said. Navy officials say they followed procedures to avoid harm to marine mammals and have seen no evidence that marine mammals were in the area at the time.

A lot of gaps remain to be filled in, including the source of an unusual explosive-type sound at the beginning of the hydrophone recording that includes the Ottawa sonar, which Scott Veirs discovered (OrcaSound, Feb. 6).

Lynne Barre of NMFS agreed that the best thing for now is to wait until the investigation begins to answer some of the lingering questions. Sometimes the cause of death may include contributing factors, such as weakened immune systems that lead to disease that ultimately lead to a physical injury of some kind.

This is the third dead killer whale to be found in the vicinity since November. The others were a newborn calf from an offshore group of orcas and a very decomposed adult orca from the offshore population.

In all the discussions about sonar, we should not forget that the loss of this young female killer whale is significant for a variety of reasons. I remember the optimism that came with her birth back in the spring of 2009. See Kitsap Sun, March 5, 2009. L-112 also was one of the orcas who received two names, in this case Sooke and Victoria, because Ken Balcomb also named some whales at the time. (See Water Ways, Aug. 25, 2010.)

Canadian sonar raises new safety concerns

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.

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 incident.

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.”

Navy research considers effects of sonar on whales

The U.S. Navy is collaborating with private and governmental researchers in an effort to determine how sonar affects marine mammals.

Tracey Moriarty, chief of the Naval Operations Environmental Readiness Division, describes three recent field studies in a piece published Monday on the Navy News Web site.

One project, based in the Bahamas, involved tracking marine mammals — notably beaked whales — during battle group exercises. Before the exercises started, researchers were able to attach radio and acoustic “tags” to three Blaineville’s beaked whales, a Cuvier’s beaked whale and five sperm whales.

Beaked whales are believed to be especially sensitive to sonar. It was in the Bahamas that six beaked whales were found dead on the beach within 24 hours of a Navy exercise.

“The mere presence of these species on a Navy range is counterintuitive to the perception of beaked whale reactions to sonar,” the Navy’s David Moretti was quoted as saying. “Given that this is an active Navy range where sonar is used, you wouldn’t anticipate this species to be present in this particular location if you believed the popular press.”

Moretti is the principal investigator for the Marine Mammal Monitoring Program at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island.

“The animals are moving in and out of here,” said Diane Claridge, director of the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization, “and one of the things I’m interested in is whether or not that movement is related to the activities taking place such as the SCC (the Navy exercise).”

The working hypothesis is that the animals move off the training range during sonar exercises and then come back when the exercises are over, but researchers can’t be sure the returning animals are the same.

“I think the most important thing is that it’s still very early,” John Durban of the National Marine Fisheries Service said in Moriarty’s report. “Like any study, it’s tempting to want results straight away, but often the key results are only obtained from continued long-term monitoring of abundance and movement patterns.”

A similar experiment in California was conducted with the assistance of Greg Schorr and Erin Falcone of Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia. By the way, Cascadia’s Robin Baird collaborated on a study published in June (PDF 832 kb) about the likelihood of beaked whales getting “the bends” when startled by sonar.

The third experiment, in the Mediterranean Sea, looked at the responses of whales to sound in an area where whales were unlikely to have been exposed to sonar in the past.

I’m looking forward to conclusions from all three studies, which are expected to be described in upcoming reports.

Some sonar questions are answered, others remain

The Navy has decided not to conduct training exercises involving sonar within Puget Sound. That information was revealed in a proposed incidental take permit for the Northwest Training Range Complex, now subject to public review under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

While this decision no doubt will be a good thing for area marine mammal populations, I’m still a bit confused about the extent to which sonar may be used in non-training conditions.

Use of sonar in the testing of equipment and new technologies will come under a separate take permit for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, based at Keyport.

But, according to a statement I received from the Navy, that still leaves open the use of sonar for “safety and navigation,” “testing,” and “maintenance.”

As I understand the process, if the Navy were to harm marine mammals in one of these procedures without obtaining a take permit in advance, the Navy would be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The potential exists for such harm, given the experience earlier this year with the fast-attack submarine USS San Francisco. The submarine was found to be using sonar, which was picked up loudly on hydrophones miles away. The submarine was in the Strait of Juan de Fuca after it left Bremerton after undergoing repairs.

It appears there were no killer whales in the area. But nobody could be sure about other marine mammals, since it was dark during much of the time the sonar was being used.

To keep things in perspective, the Navy has made progress in its effort to come into compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. While there may always be disagreement about the level of protection necessary, the Navy is explaining its operations more and working cooperatively with other agencies to reduce the harm to wildlife.

It turns out that the proposed incidental take permit for the Northwest Training Range (PDF 1.3 mb) serves as a nice primer to help us understand Navy exercises, sonar technology, types of sonar and their specific uses, potential effects on marine mammals and the history of Navy exercises where marine mammals have been killed.

Similarly, a proposed permit for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (PDF 1.1 mb) offers extensive information about the use of sonar in testing advanced equipment and related activities.

Debate over Navy sonar can be uncomfortable, but worthwhile

Sea trials this week for the newly repaired submarine USS San Francisco in the Strait of Juan de Fuca once again raises the question of whether the Navy can lessen its harm to marine life while adequately training for warfare.

<i>USS San Francisco after underwater collision, Guam, Jan. 8, 2005.</i><small> U.S. Navy photo</small>
USS San Francisco after underwater collision, Guam, Jan. 8, 2005. U.S. Navy photo

Check out my story in today’s Kitsap Sun, where I recount some of the history of this debate, which isn’t about to end soon.

We’ve covered this question many times in Water Ways. (Just put “sonar” into the search engine of this blog to go back more than a year.) The Navy won the first round in the legal theater when the U.S. Supreme Court (PDF 308 kb) reversed lower federal courts and decided that it would not second-guess the Navy until more studies are done.

I know there are many people who believe it’s an open-and-shut case, that the debate should be over, that the Navy’s mission is too important to allow interference by environmentalists, lawyers, courts or politicians.
I believe, however, that the debate is worthwhile, provided we bring knowledge to the table, though it may be uncomfortable at times.

As a result of the Shoup incident in 2003, the Navy stopped using sonar in Puget Sound except on rare occasions, such as this week. It appears the move was good for whales and dolphins, and I have not heard of any profound regrets from the Navy.

The Navy has undertaken a great deal of research about the impacts of whales on sea life, as it should, and Navy commanders have committed to making the information public. From that, scientists can debate what is and is not safe. In the process, we all can learn.

OK, there are also debates within the debate — such as whether the studies are independent enough of Navy influence — but that’s another question.

While the public does not need to know all about Navy tactics and capabilities, I believe everyone is served by discussions that can lead to either 1) better protections for the environment, or 2) knowing what environmental sacrifices we are making to protect our country.

Maybe it’s my training and experience as a reporter, but I don’t believe any one person in this debate is totally right. I believe, however, that even folks with an extreme point of view can learn from this debate and contribute something to the discussion.
In closing, I’d like to respond to those who have criticized my stories for not containing enough “facts” or else brushing lightly over the details.

In the first case, I have a relatively good relationship with Navy officials, but (as anyone involved with the Navy knows), the Navy is very cautious about the information it releases, so often my stories are not as complete as I would like. If something is speculation or opinion, I try to label it as such.

The issue of details is often a judgment call. Looking back on my early career, I often filled my stories with details that left the average reader behind while satisfying a limited number of experts. Now, I tend to go the other way, trying to put things in context and leaving out a lot of details. Over the past year and a half, I have been fortunate to write this blog, Watching Our Water Ways, where I can post links to documents and Web sites for those who like to dig deeper. I hope that satisfies more people in the long run.