Let's End the Violence Against Marine Life

I would like to thank the coordinators of this event for having the vision to use this venue to inform the public about both the positive and negative aspects of sound in the water. I've been involved in both aspects of underwater sound. I've had the good fortune to study some of the most fascinating sounds in the ocean - the sounds produced by whales communicating with each other and I've also been working to stop some of the most harmful sounds in the oceans today - the high intensity active naval sonars. One of these loud sonars is called Low Frequency Active Sonar or LFAS for short.

LFAS is a military sonar technology designed to detect and track quiet submarines. A ship sends out a loud low frequency signal which bounces back off of the submarine. The sound level of LFAS at the vessel is about 240 decibels which is equivalent in air to standing 20 feet away from a Saturn V rocket at take-off. One scientist said he could hear the LFAS signal from one ship on hydrophones over the entire North Pacific Ocean.

The US Navy plans to deploy LFAS in 75% of the world's oceans. NATO and other navies including Great Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands also have LFAS and other high intensity sonar technologies. Some of these sonars, like LFAS, use low frequencies while others use mid-frequency signals. All of these high intensity active sonars, regardless of frequency, can be dangerous to marine life, but LFAS has received the most public attention because the signals travel farther than other frequencies and it, therefore, has the potential to affect larger areas of the ocean.

I have studied the effects of boats and engine noise on whales and dolphins for over 15 years. My research and many other studies show that whales start to avoid or swim away from sounds of 115-120 dB. (120 dB is the sound of a loud outboard engine.) My research shows that whales swim 2 to 3 times faster away from boats whose engines reach the level of 120 dB. The source level of LFAS at 240 dB is one trillion times louder than the 120 dB level whales avoid. As it travels away from the ship the LFAS sound drops off to 180 dB when it is 1 km away from the deploying vessel. The US Navy is asserting that it is safe for marine mammals and fish to be exposed to 180 dB's of LFAS. 180 dB's is one million times louder than the 120 dB sounds whales avoid.

Whales use sound for finding mates, food and for communication and navigation. LFAS is transmitted in the same low frequency range used by several species of endangered whales for communication and other vital functions. The impact of the masking or interfering effects of LFAS on whale's ability to hear each other, to navigate and find food and mates is unknown. As I said earlier, I study communication in humpback whales, their social sounds. Here is some recent video footage of humpback whales, a pod of 20 whales, making social sounds to communicate with each other. .Now just imagine the whales trying to hear each other while a sound that is many thousands of times more intense than a loud outboard engine is present in the water. According to the US Navy's own statements, the sound level of LFAS can still be 120 dB's over one thousand kilometers away from the source vessel. Thus one sonar ping can effect marine mammals over a 3.8 million square km area, potentially affecting their communication and other behaviors over vast areas of the ocean.

Of course the critical question is what is the effect of these loud technologies on reproduction and survival in marine mammals, fish, and other marine life? All the official research done by the US Navy on LFAS was done using low levels of LFAS sounds. Using test sounds below 155 dB they found that blue and fin whales decreased their vocalization rates and some gray whales changed their migration path to avoid the sounds. Some humpback whales increased the length of their songs by 27% and some whales stopped singing altogether. In spite of these demonstrated effects on whale behavior using low level LFAS signals, the Navy concluded that LFAS is safe up to a received level of 180 dB. The problem with this conclusion is that there is no empirical data on effects of LFAS between 155 and 180 dB. The Navy did not test above 155 dB yet they're saying it is safe up to 180 dB. In fact and I quote the scientists doing the research "the research protocol was specifically designed to expose animals to LFAS sounds at levels that are not harmful." So on the basis of this limited testing below 155 dB on only 4 species of whales the Navy concluded that LFAS is safe for all marine mammals and fish at exposure levels up to 180 dB. This is not acceptable science and is certainly a nonprecautionary approach. It also may be in breach of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention which requires all States to take all measures necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source.

So we know nothing about the long term effects of LFAS at the real deployment level on marine mammal reproduction and survival or on marine ecosystems, nor do we know anything about the cumulative and interactive effects of several nations deploying LFAS along with other high intensity underwater technologies such as seismic testing with air guns and mid-frequency sonars.

So there is a lot we do not know at this time about LFAS. On the other hand, what do we know about LFAS and other high intensity sonars? We do know there has been a series of mass strandings of whales and dolphins associated with the use of these sonars. The best documented cases, where stranded animals were found in time for necropsy, occurred in the Bahamas (2000), Madeira (2000), and the Canary Islands (2002). Other strandings have occurred in Greece (l996), the US Virgin Islands (1998 and 1999) and the Canary Islands (1985, 1986, 1988, 1989) and, most recently, off the Northwest coast of the United States (2003).

The International Whaling Commission has observed that nearly every mass stranding on record involving multiple species of beaked whales has occurred with naval activities in the vicinity. Recent evidence indicates these sonar technologies may have killed or displaced entire populations of whales.

Evidence presented at the European Cetacean Society meeting this March in the Canary Islands suggests that these sonars may cause a type of decompression sickness in some deep-diving whales, suggesting that harm to these species may be more widespread than previously understood. In the Canary Islands the damage to their internal organs was more severe than previously reported. Thus the most seriously injured animals will probably not strand but die more quickly and sink to the bottom of the ocean where they are impossible to detect. While the effect on marine mammals is more serious than previously thought even a year ago, the extent of the problem is not known since both low and mid-frequency sonars and low frequency seismic air guns have been implicated.

The adverse impacts of LFAS extend beyond marine mammals. Low frequency sound, including sonar, has the potential to injure and kill a wide variety of fish at intensities well below the 180 dB level assumed by the US Navy to be safe. A study commissioned by the British Defense Research Agency cites that fish exposed to sounds of the same frequency and duration as the LFAS signal at various levels between 160 and 180 dB's suffered internal injuries, eye hemorrhaging, auditory damage and mortality. A study by Norway's Institute of Marine Research showed that trawl catch rates of haddock and cod fell 45-70% over a 2000 square mile area while low frequency air guns were being used. Catch rates did not recover for the 5 days surveyed after the sound stopped. Thus, LFAS and other loud, low frequency sounds can pose a significant threat to the already depleted fish stocks throughout the world's oceans.

Impacts of active sonar on human divers are also more severe than originally presented. The likelihood of panicked behavior in unalerted recreational divers exposed to LFAS has been recognized by doctors in the US Navy as a serious concern. Exposure to LFAS poses risks to recreational divers hundreds of miles from the LFAS source.

Finally, the effectiveness of LFAS in accomplishing its major mission of detecting quiet submarines in shallow, confined waters has not been demonstrated according to a report by the General Accounting Office of the US Congress. And experts point out that while LFAS can locate submarines in deep open waters there already are other safe effective systems for doing this.

What is clear is that the use of active sonar technology is expanding. Several other systems, including the mid-frequency system that has been implicated in the Bahamas and Canary Islands mass strandings, are being deployed, tested, or reconditioned for use in coastal waters, which contain critical habitat for marine mammals and other ocean life.

I just arrived here yesterday from visiting the Parliament of the European Union this past week where we submitted a petition to the Petitions Committee on behalf of the European Coalition for Silent Oceans with 39 member organizations representing 500,000 European citizens and on behalf of 27 conservation and animal welfare organizations in the United States, Canada and other countries (representing over 7.8 million US & Canadian citizens). In the petition we asked the Parliament to use their power and influence to urge the navies of the world to mitigate their use of high intensity active sonars, to ask the member states of the European Union to adopt a moratorium on the deployment of LFAS until a global assessment of its cumulative environmental impacts can be prepared, to inquire into possible legal remedies to address the uncontrolled use of the technology and to initiate the formation of a Multinational Task Force with the goal of developing international agreements regulating noise levels in the world's oceans.

Of course killing marine life needlessly with sonar is just one type of violence in a violent world. Violence obviously manifests in many ways but whether we kill whales or other humans, whether we abuse each other or the environment, violence is always a symptom of the loss of a felt sense of connection to all of life. If you can clearly feel your connection to another living organism you can't injure or kill it. When we lose the heart-felt sense of connection a feeling of emptiness grows in our souls and we try to cover up the sense of exile with material wealth, power, drugs or other addictions.

If we are going to restore the earth and preserve all life we have to open our hearts and listen to the voices of nature and we have to provide ways for others to do this. Only then will we individually and collectively be able to address the root cause of our human and environmental predicaments. I invite all of us to reach beyond whatever we have done in the past - going even deeper and broader in our personal and organizational commitments. I invite all of us as a human family to commit to reconnect our emotions with our intellect, our hearts with our minds in order to make decisions informed by both knowledge and compassion and End This War on Valued Life.

Thank you for joining me in this commitment.