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US Navy Sonar Devices Could Threaten Marine Life

Jan 30, 2015 02:08 PM EST
humpback whale

(Photo : Flickr: bookemspooky)

The US Navy is seeking permits to deploy sonar-emitting devices off the Pacific Coast, and this is raising concerns among conservationists that it could threaten marine life, according to reports.

Should the Navy be granted approval, it would install up to 720 sonobuoys at least 12 nautical miles off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and northern California, The Guardian reports. The devices, only about 3 feet long and 6 inches in diameter, are part of a training program that would help aircrews detect submarines underwater.

Unsurprisingly, wildlife advocates are opposed to the idea, which they argue could disrupt various marine animals, including whales. And their concerns are not unfounded. Previous research has linked man-made noises such as sonar signaling and the rumble of engines to impacts on our ocean's creatures.

For example, a study back in July revealed that disruptive unnatural frequencies reaching the ocean floor could be leading to a mass decline in sea hare populations. Another study even found that sonar signals leak to low frequencies that are audible to whales - thanks to their specially designed skulls that enable super sensitive hearing.

"These signals are quiet, but they are audible to the animals, and they would be relatively novel since marine mammals don't encounter many sounds in this range," marine mammal expert Brandon Southall said in a statement.

According to the study, most sonar devices transmit at signals near the 200-kilohertz (kHz) frequency, however they found some sonar systems that emitted signals as low as 90, 105 and 130 kHz - noises known to be within the cetacean's (whales, dolphins, etc) hearing range.

These devices likely don't cause physical tissue damage to whales, but the signals may affect their behavior and ability to find food, navigate and communicate, the researchers say.

Even still, the US Navy contends that their sonobuoys are virtually harmless.

"It sounds drastic in numbers, but it's really not drastic in its impact," John Mosher, northwest environmental manager for the US Pacific fleet, told The Guardian. "Anti-submarine warfare is a critical mission for the US navy."

Keep in mind that the Navy's training range is home to several endangered whale species such as orcas, humpback and blue, according to the IUCN Red List, as well as seals, sea lions and dolphins. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

In the spirit of compromise, some conservationists say there's a way that the US Navy can train their men using sonar as well as try to protect nearby marine life.

"It's a big ocean out there. You don't need to have all of those square miles of training available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Steve Mashuda, a lawyer with the public-interest law firm Earthjustice.

What's more, this isn't the first time the US Navy has experienced issues over its sonar training exercises. In January of last year, the organization was sued for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act after they allowed various underwater activities to carry on as planned, despite knowledge that it would affect millions of marine mammals. They included open-sea bombing drills, sonar training, and gunnery exercises.

"This is an unprecedented level of harm," Zak Smith, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who filed the lawsuit, told the Los Angeles Times at the time. "In order to authorize these impacts on marine mammals, the service had to turn its back on the best available science."

It's hard to say if the same can be said of the Navy's latest pending sonar activities, but it will need authorization first from the NOAA under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to follow through on its plans.

Meanwhile, a separate controversial case involving the US Navy is going on, concerning a proposal to start electronic warfare training in national forests in Washington.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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