NavySonar May Have Killed Whales
By MICHELLE FAUL
Associated Press Writer
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) JUNE14, 2000 — Autopsies of whales that beached in the Bahamas suggest apossible link between Navy sonar tests and ear hemorrhages that disoriented theanimals, a biologist hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service saidWednesday.
Darlene Ketten, an expert on whaleacoustics, said "the coincidence of the timing and the pattern of thestranding with the presence of Navy sonars ... raises a red flag and I thinkthat there's reason for concern.''
But she warned: "I'm stillnot ready to say the Navy did that.''
Ketten, a marine biologist atHarvard Medical School and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution inMassachusetts, spoke in a telephone news conference in which the FisheriesService released initial findings.
Having previously questionedalleged links between whale deaths and anti-submarine sonar tests, the Navy saidWednesday there was "a priority need'' to examine the issue. It said it hadcreated a group of experts to help.
At least 16 whales of fourdifferent species beached themselves on the islands of Abaco, Grand Bahamas andNorth Eleuthera on March 15 and 16. Seven died, including four Cuvier beakedwhales and a Blainville's dense beaked whale. The others were pushed back intothe sea.
"Wehope to build upon what we will learn ... to ensure that it does not happenagain anywhere in the world,'' Cmdr. Greg Smith, a Navy spokesman from thePentagon, told The Associated Press.
Scientists' efforts to link whalebeachings to sonar have been frustrated because corpses were too decomposed toprovide conclusive evidence. They included the 1996 beachings of 12 Cuvierbeaked whales in the Ionian Sea during NATO anti-submarine exercises.
But in March, some of the 16whales beached in front of the Abaco home of marine biologist Ken Balcomb,research director of the Washington-based Center for Whale Research. Balcomb'sswift action preserved the corpses.
The whales suffered minor tosevere hemorrhages in or around the ears, possibly caused by "a distantexplosion or an intense acoustic event,'' said the Fisheries Service, a CommerceDepartment agency concerned with the conservation and management of livingmarine resources.
Roger Gentry, coordinator of theservice's acoustics team, said investigators hadn't ruled out underwaterlandslides that could emit up to 230 decibels of sound.
Ketten said she might have moreconclusive evidence once the Navy provides a detailed map of its activities,expected in July, and she completes the autopsy studies, which could take 10months.
Smith said the U.S. ships weretransmitting signals from hull-mounted sonars that reached around 235 decibels.
"Thisis the same sonar we have used for decades, on some U.S. Navy ships and manynavies' warships are transmitting somewhere in the world every day,'' he said.
The Navy promised to devote moremoney to researching beaked whales, mysterious mammals that dwell in deepwaters. The Cuvier species is believed to be the deepest-diving mammal, reachingdepths of 6,000 feet.
Critics want to stop Navydevelopment of a new sonar, called Low Frequency Active sonar, that transmitspulses so loud they can match the roar of a rocket launch.
The Navy says it needs the systemto detect "quiet, diesel-electric submarines operated by unfriendly nationsand competitors.''
On the Net:
Fisheries service: http://www.nmfs.gov/
U.S. Navy: http://www.navy.mil
Woods Hole OceanographicInstitution: http://www.whoi.edu/home/
Environmental article: http://www.earthisland.org/eijournal/sum2000/eia—sum2000immp7.html