Tag Archives: USS San Francisco

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.

Navy sonar use stirs commotion among whale advocates

Concerns about the Navy’s use of sonar Tuesday night in the Strait of Juan de Fuca are reverberating among environmental groups, whale advocates and researchers.

USS San Francisco leaves Bremerton Tuesday // Kitsap Sun photo
USS San Francisco leaves Bremerton Tuesday // Kitsap Sun photo

Many are wondering whether killer whales and other marine mammals may have been injured by the intense sounds — including human voices —emanating from the recently repaired fast-attack submarine USS San Francisco.

From what I gather, there is talk about calling for an official investigation into the Navy’s activity, perhaps with input the National Marine Fisheries Service. More discussion is expected tonight at a public forum called by whale advocates concerned about an expansion of Navy training activities. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at Port Townsend Community Center, 620 Tyler St.

Meanwhile, Val Veirs, professor emeritus of physics at Colorado College, has calculated that the highest levels of sound received at Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island was about 140 decibels, according to a press release issued this afternoon by The Whale Museum. Veirs is president of the board for The Whale Museum.

“The received levels of the signals at Lime Kiln Lighthouse were about the most intense sounds that the hydrophones there have recorded in the past several years of continuous operation,” Veirs said a written statement.

The sonar pings were about as intense as those recorded in May 2003, when the Navy’s guided missile destroyer USS Shoup moved through Haro Strait, Veirs said.

Biologists observing killer whales at that time believe that the animals responded to the sound by moving away at a rapid pace. As a result of that incident, the Navy changed its protocols on the use of sonar.

I have requested additional information from the Navy about operations by the USS San Francisco, including general mitigation measures that the Navy takes when using sonar around marine mammals. Navy officials have indicated that the crew took the normal precautions to protect marine mammals.

For those still wondering about the strange human voice emanating through the water, you can start finding answers with this brief entry in Wikipedia:

The underwater telephone also known as UQC or Gertrude was developed by the U.S. Navy after World War II, the UQC underwater telephone is used on all manned submersibles in operation. Voices communicated through the UQC are heterodyned to a high pitch for acoustic transmission through water.

Based upon the Navy’s acknowledgment that crews were operating sonar in the Strait of Juan de Fuca but not Haro Strait, Veirs made additional calculations of the sound energy that must have emanated from the sub.

“We estimate that the distance between our hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse and the submarine was in the neighborhood of 10 nautical miles,” Veirs said. “For our hydrophones to pick up the strong signals that they did, the submarine was emitting sound with source level in the range of 174 to 226 dB re 1 microPa@1m.”

I’ll look to others to report on definitive studies and tell me whether these sound levels can cause injury under the circumstances we find in Puget Sound. But I seem to recall the levels reported by Veirs are worthy of concern. See “NOAA Technical Memorandum: Sound Exposure and Southern Resident Killer Whales (PDF 884 kb).”

While The Whale Museum has received no reports of stranded or injured marine mammals, the organization wants the public to be on alert and contact the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network, (800) 562-8832, if unusual behavior is seen.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network offered this response to a comment related to the previous entry about the sonar incident.

“The fact the sonar was taking place in the Strait of Juan de Fuca rather than Haro Strait is even more disturbing because 1) that is where the reports of Transients, a minke, & 2 gray whales were; & 2) if the sonar was happening in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, & it was being picked up so loudly at Lime Kiln & NW San Juan Island, then it must have been much louder closer to the source in the Strait…”

Obviously, this discussion will continue.