Whale Experts Oppose Bush's Navy Exemption

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George Bush has declared he is exempting the US Navy from laws prohibiting the use of sonar in its training off Southern California. But many environmental education groups and marine mammal experts like Yvonne Miles of Scanning Ocean Sectors think this move could be a very dangerous mistake.

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Last week, President Bush decided to exempt the US Navy from an environmental protection law so that it could continue using high-power sonar in its anti-submarine warfare training off the coast of Southern California, a practice environmental education groups say harms whales and other marine mammals.

Bush's decision was made despite the US Navy's own studies, which showed that the sonar soundings in coastal waters, the natural environment for large populations of marine mammals, could result in injury or even death for many sea creatures. While Bush's order has already forced a federal judge to set aside some restrictions on the range of sonar activity, the US Navy must still convince the courts that his exemptions are legal.

Environmental protection groups and marine mammal experts are concerned by Bush's decision, citing scientific research which shows that loud sonar can damage marine mammal brains and ears, and may also mask the echoes some whales and dolphins listen for when they use their own natural sonar to locate food.

Yvonne Miles is Company Director of Scanning Ocean Sectors (SOS), a company which gives environmental training to people with an interest in marine mammals and marine biology jobs to become specialised in protecting whales and dolphins. She said: 'At SOS we train people to become Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs). They aim to protect all possible marine mammal species from the effects of high levels of sound.'

According to Miles, the use of sonar can have a major affect on marine mammals. 'Cetaceans [whales, dolphins and porpoises] use their own sounds and frequencies to communicate with each other', she said, 'for feeding, locating potential mates, allowing calves to communicate with mothers, and for navigation, so interfering with this communication can have a significant impact on their well being.'

Miles added that the types of sonar used by the Navy may have a particularly damaging effect on whales and dolphins in the process of rearing their young. 'Marine mammals in some regions may be involved with calving and rearing young', she said, 'and they need to be given additional protection from high levels of sound.'

According to Bush, the Navy training exercises 'are in the paramount interest of the United States and its national security.' But in Miles' opinion, Bush should still be taking more care to minimise the risks to marine mammals. 'SOS have been involved with environmental training for naval and civilian personnel to watch for marine mammals and we understand the effectiveness of constant training in differing situations,' she said.

'We also recognise that there are significant differences between peacetime and war operations. Sonar equipment has to be tested to ensure it works in all areas and acoustic environmental conditions.

'However, these tests should be carried out with due regard to the marine environment. This matter would have been better resolved by negotiation and agreement with environmental protection organisations similar to the method used by a number of European countries.'

Miles added that the risks engendered by sonar are only one aspect of the damage humans are constantly causing to many species of marine life. 'When you start to add all the human impacts on marine mammals,' she said, 'we are a major threat to their survival.

'Apart from the effects of sonar, we are drowning whales and dolphins in fishing nets, poisoning them with chemical pollution, causing them to swallow rubbish dumped at sea, running them down with ships and catching them for food.'

Miles accepts that research carried out by the US Navy has been valuable in the field of environmental education, but thinks they would be wise to pay more attention to it. 'The US Navy have made a major contribution to basic research to understand how active sonar impacts on marine mammals,' she said.

'Regrettably they do not appear to have followed through with this work by providing its operational fleet with an effective means of detecting marine mammals and mitigating potentially negative impacts.'

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