Protections Down and Strandings Abound

Marine mammal stranding incidents that coincide with the use of Navy sonar have been in the news yet again. Dozens of cetaceans from three species stranded off the North Carolina coast in January, and over 80 Steno's dolphins stranded off the Florida Keys in March. The Navy has been implicated in both cases. These episodes come at a time when there are significant milestones occurring for the world's whales and the threat from noise.

The current administration announced last month that it will oppose any international efforts to curb its use of active sonar, despite growing calls for caution from international quarters such as the World Conservation Union, the European Parliament and the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission.

The Animal Welfare Institute's Ben White spent most of January in Mexico successfully rallying local fishermen and environmental groups against a seismic experiment that threatened thousands of marine creatures off the Yucatan. The experiment involved the use of extremely loud airguns blasting for a month and a half from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University's research vessel, Maurice Ewing.

After initially being stalled for many days, the experiment finally went ahead with the permission of the Mexican government and the protection of the Mexican Navy, which enforced a 40x40 mile exclusion zone that barred anyone from gaining access to the area. In an ironic twist, the Ewing stranded itself on a coral reef and was fined $200,000.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency that issues permits to ocean noise makers, has announced a proposal to raise the level at which it says noise hurts marine mammals. Dr. Roger Gentry, head of the NOAA acoustics team, has said consideration is always given to good science—and yet the Navy funds 70 percent of US-based research, as well as half of the world's research on the effects of underwater noise on marine mammals. A large chunk of the other half comes from the oil and gas industry, which uses noise to hunt for oil.

In a further blow to marine ecosystems, two permanent Navy sonar ranges are planned for areas off the coasts of North Carolina and California—both of which are key marine mammal habitats. Amid this current climate of heartless abandon over marine animal noise-related deaths, the Institute has decided that while continuing to fight with federal agencies, the true battleground is at the United Nations.