Nuke the whales

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.


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The basic problem is that Bush probably (like some of my co-workers, sadly) simply considers animals -- any animals, no matter how endangered -- to be basically unimportant in comparison to any economic, business, or military considerations. If we don't eat them or wear them or depend on them commercially, then their existance has no basic importance at all. They may be decorative, but there are more important things in life than decorative. Heck, having the right golf course available* is more important than decorative. If a few of them die because they get in the way, that's too bad, but they're just a few beasties, after all.

There is a profound indifference, and a profound self-centredness, to this attitude, which simply takes as being absolutely right, proper, and given that human use of the world is the only valid consideration, period. I don't think there are that many scientists who share this attitude, but I've encountered it in the non-scientific public a lot, and it runs deep. People don't question thinking that way -- what is there to question? It's just true, you know. Like boys being better at math and more interested in sex than girls. [ >:-/ This here's my sour face.]

-- this fight is ongoing, and is the basis for the discussion with co-workers referenced above.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

Hi James,

Thanks for posting the info. It is impossible to keep up with the massive amounts of mischief emanating from this administration. *sigh* I'm writing my senators and representatives now. The "Quantum Pontif" posted something a while back about funding cuts which directed one back to a site where automatic editable form letters were automatically generated and sent to ones own senators, representatives and the White House. Perhaps something like that could be put in place to handle this (and perhaps whatever other issues come to the front)? The people representing us do need to know what we think. Perhaps Sheril over at "The Intersection" may want to take this one up...?

I am not sure how this is a battle in the war on science. It is one thing to reject scientific findings. It is another to say that another thing has a priority over the environmental concerns.

He used the term "National Security" twice in that memo. Like I mentioned on another blog about this, when they play that card it is really rough to find a way around it. Feeling safe is just one of those things that people seem to have a real affinity towards!
Dave Briggs :~)