It didn’t take but two weeks for President George W. Bush to resume his war on science. Collateral damage this time will be of the cetacean order, thanks to an executive order exempting the Navy from any inconvenient environmental laws.
From the AP:
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush exempted the Navy from an environmental law so it can continue using sonar in its anti-submarine warfare training off the California coast — a practice critics say is harmful to whales and other marine mammals.
The Navy training exercises, including the use of sonar, “are in the paramount interest of the United States” and its national security, Bush said in a memorandum. “This exemption will enable the Navy to train effectively and to certify carrier and expeditionary strike groups for deployment in support of worldwide operational and combat activities, which are essential to national security,” the memo said.
Complying with the environmental law would “undermine the Navy’s ability to conduct realistic training exercises that are necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups,” Bush said
The order countermands a ruling by a U.S. District Court Judge earlier this month that
banned the use of the sonar within 12 nautical miles of the California coast, expanded from 1,100 yards to 2,200 yards the Navy’s proposed “shut down” zone in which sonar must be turned off whenever a marine mammal is spotted, required monitoring for the presence of animals for one hour before exercises involving sonar begin, and required that two National Marine Fisheries Service-trained lookouts be posted for monitoring during exercises. The judge also forbade sonar use in the Catalina Basin, an area with many marine mammals.
So much for those pesky judges. Hell, why not do away with the entire legal system? All it does is increase the paperwork. As for the science, why bother waiting for researchers to figure out just how dangerous mid-range sonar really is for species that live in an acoustic world?
It would be one thing if we already understood the impact of naval sonar on beaked whales and other marine mammals. Then Bush could argue that he had quantified and qualified the needs of national security and weighed them against known threats to whales. But he didn’t. As Jennifer Ouellette explains in a comprehensive post a couple of weeks back, there still a lot we don’t understand about how whales react to the noise equivalent of a jumbo jet landing on the street in front of your house.
We do, however, have some working hypotheses which are more than sufficient to warrant a cautious and conservative approach, one that would easily justify suspending any actions that could pose a threat until we’ve done more research. For example, six years ago, I wrote a little piece for New Scientist on this very subject:
Dorian Houser of the Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego and his team have devised a mathematical model which shows that low-frequency sound waves can interfere with a whale’s ability to safely store the gas.
Sound waves rapidly compress and then expand microscopic bubbles of gas in the tissue, they say. With each cycle, each bubble absorbs more and more of the gas dissolved in the bloodstream. Eventually, the bubbles become so big that they can rupture tissues or block blood vessels.
They may also crush nerves, leading to classic symptoms of decompression sickness such as joint pain and disorientation.
Houser reviewed studies looking at the levels of dissolved gas in diving whales and dolphins. He found that the diving behaviour of beaked whales, such as bottlenose and sperm whales, makes them particularly susceptible, as nitrogen levels have often quadrupled by the end of a typical dive.
That may explain why beaked whales seem to beach themselves more often than other species in areas with high levels of naval activity, he says.
Darlene Ketten of the Harvard Medical School has also discovered that loud blasts, like those produced by military shells, can damage the heart, lungs, liver and spleen of dolphins, as well as the most sensitive organ, the ear.
She exposed the carcasses of beached dolphins to controlled underwater blasts. “We’re seeing classic symptoms of blast lung and gut haemorrhage,” she told a meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy in Vancouver last week. Smaller individuals are particularly at risk, she says.