Lunar connection on Hanalei Bay stranding nixed.

Hanalei Bay Melon headsOn the morning of July 3 2004 there was an agitated aggregation of Melon Headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Hawai’i. This event was concurrent to the RIMPAC international naval exercise  which happens every two years.

As is typical with these tragic events, the US Navy rolled up their collective sleeves and focused on how to establish that they were not responsible.

In this case they started out with the claim that the exercises were not in progress until after the event. They also sponsored an extensive modeling of the event and presented the findings at the Fall 2004 Acoustics Society meeting. (“Analysis of melon-headed whale aggregation in Hanalei Bay,” David Fromm et. al JASA 2004)

While Dr. Fromm’s presentation was interesting, it was also fraught with data gaps – such as an analysis of the frequencies and signal types used in the exercises. The study also reiterated their claim that the “embayment” happened before the Navy commenced the exercise (which was later in the day than the stranding.).

A critical element that was omitted from the study was that the warships were calibrating their sonar prior to commencing the exercises. These calibrations were coincident to the embayment of the whales.

There were a number of other troubling  assumptions that did not square with the incident – including a “lunar” connection (based on an aggregation of melon headed whales that occurred on the same day in Japan). All tolled, it was a well funded, beautifully presented model based on exculpating assumptions – and ultimately signifying very little. The paper has not been published after peer review, and remains in abstract form in the J. Acoustical Society of America.

Hallway comments from closely linked (Office of Naval Research- ONR) sponsored scientists seemed to agree that the modeling was an expensive “CYA” presentation (their words).   Your tax dollars at work…

Noise impacts from military communication sonars are much more widespread than the US Navy would like to admit. ONR is funding research on the impacts,  but their priorities seem more focused on how to prevent these embarrassing stranding events from occurring – such as spatial-temporal planning and “recoverable threshold” testing on marine mammals – rather than  determining what the mechanism is for the aggravation.

We believe that the Navy could accomplish their mission safely if they chose to examine the signal characteristics that are agonistic and then crafted communication signals that are more benign.

Toward this end we are working on a metrics system that can qualify noise by loudness as well as “roughness” – the characteristic that distinguishes the differences between alarming sounds and pleasant sounds that may be equally loud. Hopefully this ‘metric’ will provide design guidance in the tempering of mid-frequency communication sonar signals.

The referring article is in AAAS Science with a nice title “Whale Stranding: Sonar or Lunar

US Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service work on Pacific Northwest sonar guidelines

Infamous USS Shoup incedent

Infamous USS Shoup incedent

“The July 13 Federal Register reported that the Navy wants NMFS to permit up to 14 dead marine mammals from its proposed sonar use up to 250 miles from the Northwest coast…”

In ongoing discussions about defining the Pacific Northwest warfare training ground, NMFS is being asked to weigh in on sonar guidelines.

The entire plan has been getting a lot of public attention this last year because it apparently includes provisions to lob missiles over Seattle and other coastal cities into eastern Washington. (…and who wants to be living in a missile firing range?)

The regional sensitivity around the Mid-frequency sonar derives from a nasty affair in Washington’s Haro Straits involving the Navy Destroyer USS Shoup molesting the Puget Sound J-pod orcas and probably killing some 11 harbor porpoises in the area.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer article is pretty candid about the nature of the threats and risks, but the high take levels requested in the Federal Register are a bit stunning. I have not read the actual Request for Incidental Take Permit, so I don’t know how they came up with “14 dead.”  Perhaps it was taking the eleven dead from the Haro Strait incident and tossing in a few more for good measure…

I am also not a military strategist so I can’t comment with any authority about the Navy’s perceived threats. But I would suspect that there is a degree of institutional momentum here that could be combed through much as Congress did on the recent F-22 debacle (dog-fighter airplanes designed around the cold war threat of MIG-25’s).

I believe we have the responsibility to step back a few steps and do a risk/benefits analysis on the entire program being proposed. We might find that just like the F-22 fighter jets, we don’t really need to “incidentally” kill marine mammals to secure our coasts and military assets.

The public comment period on the draft plan will be out in the fall. More words to come.

Cornwall Mass Stranding Event

Cornwall Stranding

The mass stranding event (MSE) in Cornwall UK last year points to Navy sonar. But if you read through the very comprehensive report you can see why it is difficult to arrive at unimpeachable scientific conclusions.

The report is here:

http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=WC0601_8031_TRP.pdf

The quote from the report conclusion states:

“A period of naval exercises involving a variety of high intensity acoustic sources were conducted around the time of the MSE, but evidence of one of more specific naval activities that tightly coincided in time and space with the likely initial onset of the MSE were absent in all the records of naval activities released under the Freedom of Information Act.”

The term “tightly coincided in time” is at issue because the exercises were conducted within 60 hours of the strandings – close enough to not be eliminated as a cause, but not so close as to indicate sonar as a definitive reason for the stranding.

The report is quite thorough and illustrates why it is so difficult to ascertain causation for any stranding event.

This illustrates why the US Navy can state with scientific certainty that “only 37 whales have stranded as a consequence of Navy sonar.”

In science there is no Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act that can indict criminals because they always seem to be around the scene of a crime. We can only look at the correlations and make our informed assumptions.

Minke Whales harassed by Navy Sonar

Photo Lewis Drysdale

Photo Lewis Drysdale

Yet another unfortunate event involving whales and mid-frequency sonar; two minke whales were seen “porpoising” at high speeds in waters where military operations were taking place. Observers also heard extremely loud sonar concurrent to the sightings.

Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales, reaching a bit over 30 ft. in length. Porpoising is a shallow and fast skipping across the top of the water, given to porpoises and dolphins, not 11 ton baleen whales.

It is probable that these animals were keeping as close to, and above the water surface to keep their hearing either out of harms way, or near the surface where some attenuation is afforded. (This is similar to the protective strategy used by the orcas during the Haro Strait incident in 2004).

The article also mentions a decrease in population over the years, though the sonar correlation is only insinuated.

For the complete article see: http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/news/whales-sonar009.html#cr

This news was sent to us by OCR Board member and Acoustic Ecologists Jim Cummings. (See: www.acousticecology.org )

More sad news about our complex relationship with the sea.

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