Witnesses said they looked like a wave entering the bay. There were between 150 and 200 melon-headed whales that morning, all sweeping into Hanalei Bay on Kauai at once. It was July 3, 2004, and the whales would stay in the bay for 28 hours, leaving only after a legion of volunteers helped shepherd them back to the open sea. All the animals save one–a calf, who apparently died of malnutrition following separation from its mother–apparently survived.
A two-year investigation into the mass stranding by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) never found a conclusive reason for the whale’s behavior, but they did pinpoint a possible catalyst: just before the whale stranding, six vessels of the U.S. Navy moved through the area on their way to the biannual Rim of the Pacific naval exercises. For about nine hours of that time, the vessels “intermittently transmitted active sonar,” according to the official NOAA report on the strandings.
“While causation of this stranding event may never be unequivocally determined, we consider the active sonar transmissions of July 2-3, 2004, a plausible, if not likely, contributing factor in what may have been a confluence of events,” reported NOAA.
Sonar, as any sailor will tell you, helps keep America safe. Developed during World War I but first used to great effect in World War II, sonar–SOund NAvigation and Ranging–is a device that uses sound to scan for submerged objects. There’s passive sonar, which is akin to sticking a microphone in the ocean, and then there’s active sonar, in which a ship sends out a sonic energy pulse (called a “ping”) that reflects off objects, giving ship’s operators a kind of picture of what’s beneath them.
“Active sonar is the best way to detect diesel submarines,” said Ray Sokolowski, a retired sonar man of 24 years who still works for the Navy Department. Diesel boats are smaller and much quieter than their nuclear-powered cousins, making them potentially lethal threats to our U.S. Navy. Under the sea, what you can’t hear coming at you can most definitely kill you.
So sonar’s great in that respect. Unfortunately, researchers also tell us pretty conclusively that active sonar messes with marine mammals, who use sonar much the way we humans use our eyes. The mass whale stranding in Hanalei is just one of many such events that occur, nearly always in close proximity to U.S. Navy ships and exercises.
Which is why some environmentalists are crying foul over a new draft study released by the Navy that shows its fleet exercises and testing missions in the waters around Hawaii and California over the next five years could potentially cause upwards of two million “takes”–changes in marine mammal behaviors that could range from an animal simply swimming away from a naval ship to “temporary hearing loss” to more permanent damage. More to the point, the navy’s report finds that the exercises could kill up to 200 mammals and cause another 1,600 injuries each year.
The Navy says it may be able to mitigate all those deaths and injuries (more on that later) and portrays the rest of the “takes” as relative inconveniences for the mammals. “Now we have a lot more takes of large whales because of science,” said Conrad Erkelens, an archaeologist by training who now studies marine life for the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet. “We look and we don’t see any indications of harm. We see mammals that leave [the area inundated with sonar waves], and they come back [after the sonar is turned off].”
Others, like Zak Smith, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, disagree. They point to research that seems to show deep-diving beaked whales have died of “the bends” after rising too quickly to escape active sonar.
“This is a big deal,” said Smith. “The amount of anticipated harm is staggering. They estimate almost three million instances of temporary hearing loss [in marine mammals]. This is significant, and can lead to death. I’m not aware of any government agency since NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] has been in existence saying, ‘we have a proposed action and anticipate this level of magnitude of harm.’”
To find out why the projected amount of marine disturbance was so high–much higher, in fact, than similar environmental studies put out by the Navy in past years–I went to Maui Waena Intermediate School in Kahului. From 5-8pm on Wednesday, June 14, officials and contractors with the Navy were gathered in the school’s cafeteria for an open house to explain their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) document, which is currently being circulated for public comments.
Arriving shortly after five, I was relieved to see a few dozen people milling about near all sorts of charts and images mounted throughout the room. But my relief evaporated when I heard at the sign-up table that I was the first member of the public to arrive. Looking around the room again, I realized that nearly everyone (except for two officers in white uniforms) were wearing the faded aloha shirts favored by bankers, land developers and, apparently, naval contractors.
Navy officials held such meetings all that week throughout the state, Pacific Fleet Public Affairs Officer Mark Matsunaga (formerly a reporter with the Honolulu Advertiser) told me. Fifty-one residents attended the Kauai open house, 33 in Hilo, 39 in Honolulu and, for whatever reason (the Maui Film Festival opened that same night) just six people–including yours truly–showed up at some point during the three-hour Maui meeting.
Open houses like this one were part of a massive public relations effort by the Navy, which does things like this every five years. See, our nation’s environmental laws require the Navy–the most powerful fleet in history–to obtain permits every half-decade from the National Marine Fisheries Service before it can conduct naval operations in U.S. waters.
“The Proposed Action would ensure the Navy accomplishes its mission to maintain, train and equip combat-ready U.S. naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas,” states a Navy press release on the DEIS.
The result is a document navy personnel told me was 1,800 pages long (a similar document is being prepared for fleet exercises in the Atlantic). The report details how the Navy’s proposed “use of active sonar and explosives,” “sonar maintenance,” “gunnery exercises” and “pierside sonar testing” in San Diego and Pearl Harbor will affect marine life.
As I slowly and painfully learned over the hour I spent at the open house (naval personnel, whether in uniform or bankers’ garb, speak in a mix of jargon and acronyms that, at best, is disorienting), there are a whole manner of reasons why the DEIS seems to outline such harm towards marine mammals.
A big reason is simply that the Navy is proposing to use more ships in the Pacific than in the past. There’s been a reorienting of the Navy towards Asia in recent years, and decisions like the recent announcement to send the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships (small, fast vessels capable of getting close to shore) to the Pacific reflects that mission.
John Van Name, a senior environmental planner with the Pacific Fleet, also said the new DEIS now includes activities the Navy was always conducting, but for one reason or another never included in their public analyses. “We’ve always done sonar maintenance at the pierside,” Van Name told me. “That’s now included in the analysis.”
But a big reason why the Navy’s proposed activities seem so destructive is that we now know a great deal more about how naval exercises–and especially active sonar–affect marine mammals. And we can thank the Navy for that.
“The Navy is a really good steward of the environment,” Dennis Rowley, a Pacific Fleet environmental manager, told me when I first arrived at the June 13 open house. “It truly is.”
There were brochures, signs and materials throughout the open house making Rowley’s point in dozens of ways. There were photos of a sea turtle personnel on Kauai rescued. There were “Environmental Awards” on display that had been given to the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) at Barking Sands, Kauai.
There were copies of Currents, “The Navy’s Energy & Environmental Magazine,” on display, as well as full-color 12-page brochures titled “United States Navy: protecting the seas through science.” The latter included a mix of shots of naval personnel and marine life like dolphins.
“Sailors have a unique relationship with the oceans,” the brochure states. “We recognize that activities at sea could potentially affect marine life. In order to understand–and ultimately minimize–such effects, the U.S. Navy has developed a robust marine mammal research program.”
Rowley said the navy spent $26 million in ocean research last year. “As we learn more, we adjust our previous findings,” he said.
An informational brochure on the DEIS further trumpets this research. “The Navy strives to be a world leader in marine species research and has provided more than $100 million over the past five years to universities, research institutions, federal laboratories, private companies and independent researchers around the world to increase the understanding of marines species physiology and behavior,” states the DEIS brochure. “The Navy funds approximately $5 million in research and monitoring in Hawaii and California each year.”
While undoubtedly welcome in the world of marine mammal science, the Navy’s public relations materials leave out of a few things. Like that fact that $26 million (or even $100 million) is microscopic in terms of the Navy’s budget, which totaled $161.4 billion (not counting a special $15 billion contingency fund) in fiscal year 2012. To put the money spent on marine research into perspective, in 2012 the Navy also spent $13.5 million on “sonar switches and transducers” and another $27.8 million on “minesweeping replacing equipment.”
What’s more, Smith with the NRDC (which has sued the Navy, saying its operations violate environmental laws) says the Navy research is actually mandatory, given the operations it wishes to conduct.
“I think it’s great, but the environmental laws of the United States require this research,” he said. “I’m not interested in patting any agency on the back for doing what the law requires them to do.”
But Smith does credit the Navy for the way it uses computer modeling in determining where marine mammals are in relation to ships during exercises. “The Navy is doing modeling that other agencies aren’t doing,” he said.
In fact, the Navy has so much faith in its modeling (and other mitigation efforts) that Van Name told CNN a few months ago that “those injuries and mortalities [potentially caused by the naval exercises] will be none.”
It’s an amazing statement, and if true, will be wonderful. But environmentalists like Smith aren’t convinced. Yes, naval warships stay away from places like the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary when conducting exercises involving the use of active sonar (even so, whale sanctuary Superintendent Malia Chow said her organization is monitoring the Navy’s EIS development “very closely”). And yes, sonar technicians are trained to power down when they discover marine mammals are nearby (Sokolowski told me the sonar operators have to cut power when a thousand yards from a mammal, cut more power if the animal gets within 500 yards and shut the equipment down entirely if the mammal gets within 200 yards).
But modeling can only tell you so much. The use of lookouts–a major mitigation effort trumpeted by the Navy–has limitations.
“Courts have found that lookouts are ‘ineffective and inadequate,’” Smith said. “The detection rate is very low–less than 10 percent–and that’s in ideal conditions. What about fog?”
Still, the Navy is making real progress in marine environmentalism. Just a few years ago, the Navy was denying that active sonar played a role in whale strandings, like the one that happened in Hanalei Bay. Now they’re admitting that sonar does affect whales and dolphins, though it’s still couched in great uncertainty.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about mammals or how sound moves through water,” said Matsunaga, the Pacific Fleet’s public affairs officer.
And Erkelens, the archaeologist working with the Navy, says DEIS’ increase in “takes” is a direct result of the science the Navy is carrying out to learn exactly how marine mammals behave when encountering active sonar. Ironically though, Erkelens’ example of how this research is working wasn’t all that reassuring.
“Five years ago, we thought blue whales couldn’t hear mid-frequency sonar,” he told me. “But now, as the science matures, we find that they might.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
The Navy’s Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing DEIS is available online at http://www.HSTTEIS.com. The public comment period ends on July 10, 2012.
You can submit a comment on the DEIS at that website or by writing to the following:
Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Southwest
Attention: HSTT EIS/OEIS Project Manager–EV21.CS
1220 Pacific Highway, Building 1, Floor 3
San Diego, CA 92132-5190.
Cover artist: Patrick Parker