Rob Parsons

Drowning in Sound

Dr. Marsha Green's quest to regulate ocean noise impacts

by Rob Parsons

June 26, 2008

Confused and injured sea creatures
strand themselves photo: E. Luschei.n..

The world's oceans are reeling under a myriad of impacts. A large part of this is due to man's tampering with the vast aquatic ecosystem resources covering two-thirds of planet Earth. According to landmark reports issued by the Pew Oceans Commission, 30 percent of coral reefs are gone, 80 percent of krill stocks are gone, and 90 percent of the ocean's large fish have been over-fished.

Speaking last week at the Pacific Whale Foundation's Ocean Discovery Center in Ma`alaea, Dr. Marsha Green spelled out the expanding awareness of another human-caused impact: underwater noise pollution. Green, a Professor at Fulbright College and President of the Ocean Mammal Institute, started talking about this topic back in 1998 on Maui, where she has conducted research since 1986.

Renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau referred to the vast undersea ocean regions as, "The Silent World" (also the title of his 1953 best-selling book,) Green reminded us. But today, it is anything but silent, with a cacophony of clatter emanating from ship traffic, underwater drilling and demolition, seismic air guns from oil and gas exploration, and Navy Mid-Frequency and Low-Frequency Active Sonar testing.

Water's density means that it transmits sound much more effectively than air. Indeed, swimmers diving down in Hawaiian waters during whale season may easily hear the songs of humpback whales, possibly from miles away. Like many other ocean mammals and other creatures, the humpbacks depend upon subtle auditory cues to interpret the undersea world around them.

Drowning in Sound, the Ocean Noise Coalition's new pamphlet, maps out more than 17 locations worldwide of marine mammal strandings associated with known sonic activity. Instances in the pamphlet include the 2004 incident involving 200 disoriented melon headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kauai during U.S. Navy maneuvers in nearby waters.

Other mass strandings have occurred several times in the Canary Islands, from 1985 through 2004, and most notably, in the Bahamas in 2000. In that episode, said Green, 14 beaked whales, two minke whales, and one spotted dolphin stranded themselves.

Coincidentally, one of the dying whales beached itself in front of the research station of Kenneth Balcomb, who runs the Bahamas Marine Mammal Survey on the island of Abaco. Balcomb and his colleagues persuaded a local restaurant to put whale carcasses in the freezer to be studied later.

A specialized team performed CT scans of the beaked whales heads, and the auditory damage was clearly evident. The X-Ray studies revealed bleeding around the inner ears, brains and lungs, with trauma to other tissue. It provided the first clear evidence of injury to marine mammals connected to U.S. Navy sonar testing.

Green stressed that underwater acoustic impacts, up to 215 decibels at the source, are not limited to just the hearing of marine creatures, but may affect the entire body. The Navy has data on impacts of sonic impacts on human divers, yet continues to seek exemptions on impacts to marine mammals.

One such exemption from provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was granted for twelve tests over two years in Hawaiian waters, ending in January 2009. In May 2007, Green's Ocean Mammal Institute and three other groups filed a lawsuit, asking that the Navy abide by the protections afforded by the MMPA.

During the extensive hearings, two former Navy admirals testified that passive listening devices are very effective for submarine detection. The Navy contends it needs to test and deploy Low and Mid-Range Active Sonar to track quiet-running subs.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra returned a ruling in February of this year that Green described as "extremely balanced." She believes Ezra went to great length in his 84 page ruling to weigh the need for national defense training against that of endangered species protection. According to Green, the ruling stipulated that Navy Active Sonar testing violates both National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Coastal Zone Management (CZM) provisions, and that protective mitigation measures must be employed.

According to Green, because of Judge Ezra's ruling, the Navy is required to do aerial survey monitoring during military exercises to locate whales, and to reduce or completely halt sonar tests when whales are within a certain range of Navy vessels. Underwater acoustic monitoring must also be conducted with listening devices, to detect marine mammals that may not be visible on or near the surface.

The U.S. Navy is appealing the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California. But Green said that court is "the most liberal appeals court in the country," and doubted that Ezra's findings would be over-ruled.

Meanwhile, the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises are about to commence, running throughout the month of July. A multi-national training exercise operating bi-annually since 1971, countries participating with the U.S. Navy this year are Australia, Canada, Chile, Great Britain, Japan, Netherlands, Peru, South Korea, and Singapore.

Sea faring military of various countries used the island of Kaho`olawe for target practice until 1982, when Hawaiian activists with the Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana secretly paddled to the island during the RIMPAC exercises. That same year, Hawaii House and Senate resolutions called for cessation of the bombing exercises. Finally, in May, 1994, Kaho`olawe was returned to state ownership by the federal government.

In 2006, a lawsuit filed by the National Resources Defense Council forced the Navy to obtain permits to deploy sonar testing during its RIMPAC exercises. But that won't be the case this year, unless they are again taken to court.

Enter the state Office of Planning. According to Green, in a letter sent a month ago to the Navy's Pacific Fleet Environmental Office in Pearl Harbor, State Planning Director Abbey Seth Mayer called for active sonar of no more than 145 decibels in Hawaiian waters, which extend three miles from the shorelines. Green said that in the letter, Mayer (referring to data in the Navy's own Environmental Impact Statement) stated that anything greater could be expected to be harmful to marine mammals.

CZM law puts the state waters in Hawaii's jurisdiction, while beyond that is subject to federal guidelines. Should the Navy comply with the State directives, said Green, it could mean the sonar deployment only takes place from vessels or helicopters from 20-25 miles offshore.

Green's persistent efforts over the past decade seem to be bringing awareness to the issues of unregulated ocean noise. She has assisted the Hawaii Ocean Noise Coalition (HONC) with petition drives and sign-waving events. HONC is one of more than 140 non-governmental organizations worldwide that are calling for the United Nations to impose international regulation of ocean noise.

The Drowning in Sound pamphlet -which has tracked efforts since 2004 by international governmental agencies-is addressing the issue. Ranging from the European Parliament to the World Conservation Union, from the International Maritime Organization to the European Union, progressive steps are being taken to recognize and address the harmful impacts of ocean noise.

Yet, President George W. Bush is making a last-ditch effort to open new offshore areas to drilling for oil and natural gas. If approved, these regions in the Gulf of Mexico, and off Pacific and Alaskan shores would be subjected to twofold noise impacts: exploratory seismic testing, and then drilling.

Green said the Navy is not required to notify the public when they test, nor do they need to reveal test locations after the fact. "It's all classified," she said.

The Navy just released a Final EIS for the Pacific Range Complex, studying potential impacts of military training in an enormous area of 2,235,000 square nautical miles, extending all the way to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (Papahanaumokuakea National Monument.) Green said the FEIS covers RIMPAC, live munitions training, land and air, "forever, and hardly anyone knows about it."

"Where is the protection for the Humpback Whale Sanctuary and the Monument?" she asked.

Green recently appeared on Tia Christenson's "Sustainable Girl" Akaku public access TV show along with Earthjustice attorney Koa-lani Kaulukukui. They conclude that one of the flaws in the FEIS was the failure to study a "no action" alternative. It has not been determined whether there will be a legal challenge to the adequacy of the document, but Green believes it is very likely.

Persistent and dedicated in her education and advocacy efforts to safeguard the ocean's creatures from ocean noise impacts, Dr. Marsha Green continues to be a leader in protection of Hawaii's fragile marine eco-systems, and those around the globe. munity where I grew up.