Dr. Marsha Green (Ocean Mammal Institute) and Sigi Lueber (ASMS: Swiss Marine Mammal Protection) organized a meeting with NATO at their Brussels headquarters on October 13, 2003 to present petitions and discuss the mitigation and regulation of high intensity active sonars. In addition to Dr. Green and Ms Lueber the delegation included Dr. Caroline Lucas and Eija Riitta Anneli Korhola, both members of the European Parliament; Dr. Linda Weilgart, a marine mammal scientist from Dalhousie University; Kjell Sevon, a lawyer from Parliament; Ernst Guelcher, an advisor to Parliament and Ed Lueber from ASMS. The delegation met for over one hour with Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Secretary General for External Relations and Dr. Michael Carron, Senior Principal Scientist Anti-Submarine Warfare, in charge of Marine Mammal Risk Mitigation for NATO. Dr. Shea was well-known from his skillful handling of the publicity for NATO regarding the Kosovo conflict.
The delegation delivered two petitions. Sigi Lueber presented one petition on behalf of The European Coalition for Silent Oceans, which ASMS formed in 2002. This petition contained almost 100,000 signatures from European citizens calling for a moratorium on the deployment of Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) until a transparent Global Environmental Impact Statement can be prepared and evaluated. The second petition, presented by Dr. Marsha Green was signed by 69 environmental and conservation organizations in the US, Canada and Europe representing a total membership of 8.3 million people. This petition requests the Secretary General of NATO to urge member states to rapidly mitigate their use of high intensity active sonar, requests the North Atlantic Council to adopt a moratorium on the deployment of new low frequency systems by NATO and its member states until a global assessment of their cumulative environmental impacts can be prepared and evaluated, requests the North Atlantic Council through its Policy Coordination Group to consider limits on the transfer of quiet diesel-electric and nuclear submarines to nations outside the NATO Alliance (navies using high intensity sonar argue that newer, quieter submarines are the reason why such active sonars are now required), and requests that the North Atlantic Council commit itself to work with the EU and its member states to initiate the formation of a Multinational Task Force with the goal of developing international agreements regulating noise levels in the world's oceans. Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was instrumental in drafting this petition and Mark Palmer of Earth Island Institute took charge of circulating it to environmental groups.
The meeting with NATO was planned for October 13, 2003 since last August. Fortuitously, a highly publicized article appeared in Nature on October 9, 2003 setting the stage for the delegation's visit. This article, "Gas-bubble Lesions in Stranded Cetaceans", discusses physiological evidence of tissue damage in stranded cetaceans from the formation of gas bubbles such as those that develop in decompression sickness. The eighteen European scientists who co-authored the paper suggest that the presence of these gas bubbles in whales that stranded during a naval exercise using sonar in the Canary Islands (2002) indicates that acoustic factors may be the cause of the gas bubbles. The scientists collectively call for environmental regulation and limitations on the adverse impact of sonar on cetaceans.
The BBC announced the delegation's visit to NATO on its Website several hours before the October 13 meeting ("MEPs Fight for Whales") and the BBC World Service Television filmed them carrying boxes of petitions into the NATO meeting room. Before and after the meeting they interviewed members of the delegation and did a story on the meeting on international TV that evening.
Dr Shea opened the meeting by saying how significant it was that this meeting was taking place and that he would listen to our concerns and hoped we would do the same for their side of the issue. He then asked Dr. Carron to present the research NATO has been doing on sonar and whales, collaborating with Dr. Peter Tyack and others. Dr. Carron emphasized that he cared deeply about marine mammals as did the scientists he collaborated with such as Bob Gisiner (Office of Naval Research), Peter Tyack, and Darlene Ketten. Dr. Carron went on to give more details about the marine mammal tags they had developed, how they were focusing on beaked whales, etc. However, the delegation made it clear that the research on marine mammals over the past 10 years (especially that sponsored by the U.S. Navy) has not been particularly helpful in protecting them from the sonars. The delegation emphasized that unless the research was on how to replace the dangerous sonars with more benign methods, they were more interested in having regulatory measures adopted to directly protect the whales. They also stated that not only beaked whales are vulnerable but that other whale species and fish have been found to be affected by the sonars.
The delegation asked for Dr. Carron's reaction to the recent article in Nature regarding bubble lesions in stranded whales and dolphins. He thought it was a good and important article. The delegation also noted that there is a conflict-of-interest in the U.S. Navy being a major sponsor of marine mammal research on the effects of noise since they produce much controversial noise pollution. Dr. Carron did not share the view that U.S. Navy funding of whale research was problematic, stating that it was openly published research unlike that of the tobacco company-sponsored research on lung cancer, e.g. Indeed, he thought the U.S. Navy should be the organization spending money on this issue.
MEP Korhola then stressed that she was interested in a moratorium on the use of the sonar and this view was reiterated by the rest of the group. (She also mentioned that she was a member of the largest political party in Parliament). Dr. Shea cautioned that NATO's power in this regard was limited and that each individual country had jurisdiction over which sonars they would use and how. He said that to address this issue requires a political decision by the countries involved. Dr. Carron quickly added that he is not a politician and has no desire to play politics. Dr. Carron noted that France in particular uses powerful sonars that have not been open to scrutiny by the public.
The delegation asked to what degree NATO was using mid-frequency tactical sonar and Dr. Carron said that NATO only has a few ships, the Alliance among them. Later, however, it became apparent that ships could be under NATO command, even if the ship didn't belong to NATO. MEP Dr. Lucas stated that even if high intensity sonar use was minimal among NATO ships, NATO had a leadership role to play as an umbrella organization for NATO countries using harmful sonars. Sigrid Lueber asked whether the Alliance had been doing active acoustic tests in the Ligurian whale sanctuary and Dr. Carron denied this. Later, however, he mentioned that they had exposed at least one sperm whale to a 2-3 kHz sonar and the whale didn't stop feeding. This was anything but reassuring to many of the delegation.
Dr. Shea ended the meeting over an hour later, stating that the sonar issue is clearly a very hot political topic. He reiterated that the fact that this meeting took place underlines NATO's commitment to work on this issue. He said that he would pass the petitions on to the Secretary General of NATO, Lord Robertson, who will respond to the petitions and will, in turn, pass them on to the NATO commanders. The new Secretary General, taking over in December, also will be briefed. As the new Secretary General is from the Netherlands, traditionally a "green" country, Dr. Shea felt he would be concerned about the environment and this issue. Our concerns would also be transmitted to the individual member nations. Dr. Shea said he felt the meeting was productive, that we each exchanged our viewpoints and concerns, that this is what he would be telling the media waiting outside and he hoped we would do the same. In fact, in the subsequent BBC interviews of MEP Dr. Lucas and Dr. Green, both expressed their impatience with doing yet more research on the effects of sonar on whales, calling for a complete moratorium on these sonars at least until a global assessment has been completed and evaluated and asking NATO to uphold the Precautionary Principle.
While NATO appeared concerned about the sonar issue it became evident during the discussion that there may have been some misunderstanding about how the delegation and the general public want the sonar issue to be addressed. Drs. Shea and Carron seemed to be under the impression that we primarily want more scientific research when we actually want regulatory action. Could it be that NATO decision makers on the sonar issue have been receiving biased advice that does not reflect the will of the majority of the public? Has NATO been relying primarily on input from US Navy sponsored scientists (some of whom now also work with NATO) who may be arguing that more research is needed to "solve" this issue and reduce the sonar controversy? In fact the public just doesn't want to see more whales washing up dead on beaches following naval maneuvers. The delegates made it clear that addressing this requires international regulatory action.
Marsha L Green, PhD and Lindy Weilgart, PhD