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Event

 
Whales and dolphins threatened by naval sonar, says UN report 

By Daniel Howden 
Published: 25 November 2005 
http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article329181.ece

High-intensity naval sonar poses a serious threat to whales, dolphins and 
porpoises that depend on sound to survive, says a report by the United 
Nations Environment Programme. 

The study lends the first official support to claims by environmental 
groups that military manoeuvres are responsible for the increasing 
incidence of mass whale beachings. "We know about other threats such as 
over-fishing, hunting and pollution [but] a new and emerging threat to 
cetaceans is that of increased underwater sonars," said Mark Simmonds, of 
the Whale and Dolphin Society. "These low-frequency sounds travel vast 
distances, hundreds if not thousands of kilometres from the source." 

A coalition of environmental groups launched by, among others, Jean-Michel 
Cousteau, son of the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, sued the US Navy in 
October, over its use of sonar, saying the ear-splitting sounds violated 
environmental protection laws. The lawsuit is aimed at vessels that use 
mid-frequency sonar to locate submarines and underwater objects. The navy 
has 60 days to respond. 

Tests on the bodies of seven whales that died near Gran Canaria in 2002 
found haemorrhages and inner-ear damage, which experts said was caused by 
high-intensity, low-frequency sonar used in the area, it added. There are 
no laws governing noise pollution in the oceans, but western governments, 
considered largely responsible with their increased military presence in 
the seas, say they need more research before taking action. 

The Australian Department of Defence has admitted two minehunters used 
short-range, high-frequency sonar to search for a 360-year-old Dutch wreck 
off Marion Bay, where 110 pilot whales died in two beachings last month. 

But the defence officials denied any responsibility for the strandings, 
saying the first one happened while the ships were still anchored off the 
Tasmanian capital, Hobart, a significant distance to the west. "The later 
presence of the two ships in the area is purely coincidental," a spokesman 
said. 

Environmentalists say the ear-splitting sounds can disrupt the navigation 
systems of whales and dolphins. Underwater seismic testing by the oil and 
gas industries has also been implicated. But the closest exploration work 
to Marion Bay last week was in the waters between Tasmania and Victoria, 
275 miles north. 

Tasmania has one of the world's highest rates of whale beachings, and 
Marion Bay is a notorious blackspot. In 1998, 110 pilot whales died after 
beaching themselves there. 

And in 2004, 115 pilot whales and bottle-nosed dolphins died in two 
strandings off nearby Maria Island, prompting the Australian government to 
set up a national database of such incidents. 

Wildlife officials said that the latest deaths may have been caused by the 
animals becoming disoriented by the topography of the area, on the 
island's south-eastern coast. Mark Pharaoh, of the Tasmanian Parks and 
Wildlife Service, said: "The most common belief here is that since these 
strandings are so regular, it's basically difficult country for a whale to 
navigate in." 

Another wildlife officer, Ingrid Albion, said: "Only one of them has to 
get into trouble and make a wrong turn, and they'll actually call the rest 
of the pod to them." 

Researchers at the University of Tasmania have suggested beachings may be 
linked to a 10-year cycle of increased wind strengths over the Southern 
Ocean. Changes in the earth's magnetic field and pursuit by killer whales 
are among other theories. 

Animal protection groups have for years lobbied to restrict the use of 
sonar, saying the sound blasts disorient the sound-dependent creatures and 
cause bleeding from the eyes and ears. 

Mr Simmonds added: "This is a hugely serious concern because these animals 
need sound to navigate, to find their food, to communicate and to mate." 

A report by the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee 
said the link between sonar and whale deaths was "very convincing and 
appears overwhelming". 

High-intensity naval sonar poses a serious threat to whales, dolphins and 
porpoises that depend on sound to survive, says a report by the United 
Nations Environment Programme. 

The study lends the first official support to claims by environmental 
groups that military manoeuvres are responsible for the increasing 
incidence of mass whale beachings. "We know about other threats such as 
over-fishing, hunting and pollution [but] a new and emerging threat to 
cetaceans is that of increased underwater sonars," said Mark Simmonds, of 
the Whale and Dolphin Society. "These low-frequency sounds travel vast 
distances, hundreds if not thousands of kilometres from the source." 

A coalition of environmental groups launched by, among others, Jean-Michel 
Cousteau, son of the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, sued the US Navy in 
October, over its use of sonar, saying the ear-splitting sounds violated 
environmental protection laws. The lawsuit is aimed at vessels that use 
mid-frequency sonar to locate submarines and underwater objects. The navy 
has 60 days to respond. 

Tests on the bodies of seven whales that died near Gran Canaria in 2002 
found haemorrhages and inner-ear damage, which experts said was caused by 
high-intensity, low-frequency sonar used in the area, it added. There are 
no laws governing noise pollution in the oceans, but western governments, 
considered largely responsible with their increased military presence in 
the seas, say they need more research before taking action. 

The Australian Department of Defence has admitted two minehunters used 
short-range, high-frequency sonar to search for a 360-year-old Dutch wreck 
off Marion Bay, where 110 pilot whales died in two beachings last month. 

But the defence officials denied any responsibility for the strandings, 
saying the first one happened while the ships were still anchored off the 
Tasmanian capital, Hobart, a significant distance to the west. "The later 
presence of the two ships in the area is purely coincidental," a spokesman 
said. 

Environmentalists say the ear-splitting sounds can disrupt the navigation 
systems of whales and dolphins. Underwater seismic testing by the oil and 
gas industries has also been implicated. But the closest exploration work 
to Marion Bay last week was in the waters between Tasmania and Victoria, 
275 miles north. 

Tasmania has one of the world's highest rates of whale beachings, and 
Marion Bay is a notorious blackspot. In 1998, 110 pilot whales died after 
beaching themselves there. 

And in 2004, 115 pilot whales and bottle-nosed dolphins died in two 
strandings off nearby Maria Island, prompting the Australian government to 
set up a national database of such incidents. 

Wildlife officials said that the latest deaths may have been caused by the 
animals becoming disoriented by the topography of the area, on the 
island's south-eastern coast. Mark Pharaoh, of the Tasmanian Parks and 
Wildlife Service, said: "The most common belief here is that since these 
strandings are so regular, it's basically difficult country for a whale to 
navigate in." 

Another wildlife officer, Ingrid Albion, said: "Only one of them has to 
get into trouble and make a wrong turn, and they'll actually call the rest 
of the pod to them." 

Researchers at the University of Tasmania have suggested beachings may be 
linked to a 10-year cycle of increased wind strengths over the Southern 
Ocean. Changes in the earth's magnetic field and pursuit by killer whales 
are among other theories. 

Animal protection groups have for years lobbied to restrict the use of 
sonar, saying the sound blasts disorient the sound-dependent creatures and 
cause bleeding from the eyes and ears. 

Mr Simmonds added: "This is a hugely serious concern because these animals 
need sound to navigate, to find their food, to communicate and to mate." 

A report by the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee 
said the link between sonar and whale deaths was "very convincing and 
appears overwhelming". 

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