How Obama Can Save the Whales in the World’s Largest Marine Reserve

The state of the universe.
July 1 2014 7:02 AM

Obama’s Chance to Save the Whales

Keep Navy sonar exercises out of the world’s largest ocean reserve.

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This year’s ramped-up RIMPAC exercises highlight the Obama doctrine’s pivot toward Asia. But projecting a more robust U.S. naval presence in the Pacific threatens to undermine the conservation goals of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. The islands were once home to two U.S. naval air stations, and although there are few large Navy trainings conducted in these waters today, ships in the area may engage in sonar testing. The only current restriction on Navy sonar operations is a 12-nautical-mile limit surrounding the islands—and only for low-frequency sonar. Mid-frequency sonar exercises—the kind of sonar implicated in the recent Crete strandings—have no limitations. Michael Jasny, the director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, estimates that 99.6 percent of the newly expanded national monument is currently unprotected from naval sonar.

Palmyra Atoll.
Palmyra Atoll, part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Navy hasn’t always been indifferent to whales. Beginning in the early 1960s, the U.S. Navy captured and trained dolphins, orcas, and other small cetaceans to patrol harbors for enemy swimmers, retrieve unexploded armaments from the ocean floor, and sweep harbors for live mines in Vietnam. In 1986, Navy dolphins were first deployed in the Persian Gulf to patrol the harbor in Bahrain to protect U.S. flagships from enemy swimmers and mines and to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers through potentially dangerous waters. In 2003, during Operation Enduring Freedom, Navy-trained dolphins and sea lions were redeployed to clear mines near the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr and other locations.

For decades, the Navy has also studied whales’ exquisitely refined biosonar in hopes of reverse-engineering it to improve the Navy’s own surveillance of enemy submarines in dark ocean depths. It’s a cruel irony that the Navy’s modern, high-intensity sonar—partly derived from its extensive research into cetacean biosonar—causes mass strandings of certain species of whales.

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In the years since losing its first court case over sonar exercises, the Navy has agreed to spend tens of millions of dollars studying the behavioral responses of deep-diving whales to high-intensity sonar. There is now consensus among researchers—including those funded by the Navy—that whales are acutely sensitive to acoustic disturbances. Sonar and other sources of ocean noise provoke a range of lethal and nonlethal responses, including abandoning their foraging habitats and diverting their migration paths. And the stress of chronic noise pollution responses can threaten whales’ often fragile reproductive health.

Given this growing body of evidence, one wonders why the Navy continues to insist on conducting sonar trainings in whale habitats, even at the risk of turning would-be sanctuaries into death traps. Why must whales continue to die for military practice?

Despite their highly evolved social structures and their prodigious talents for communication and navigation, whales don’t grasp the fine points of territorial limits, laws of the sea, and national monument designations. They can’t escape the underwater cacophony from transcontinental shipping, offshore oil and gas drilling, and military sonar that have combined to make their marine habitats unbearably noisy.

The U.S. Navy has repeatedly failed to conduct sonar trainings without harming federally protected marine mammals. And as judges in virtually every circuit have ruled, regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have failed to hold the Navy accountable to the law. Now is the time for citizen action, during the summerlong public comment period before the fine-print rules are finalized. Comments should be directed to the secretary of Commerce and the secretary of Interior. It will then fall to the commander in chief to finally grant the whales a sanctuary from the Navy’s acoustic storm. He should begin with the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

War of the Whales: A True Story

Joshua Horwitz is the author of War of the Whales, a True Story, which Amazon selected as a Best Book for July. For more about the book, go to WaroftheWhales.com.

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