David Suzuki: Sonar and whales are a deadly mix

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      Whales face numerous threats, many from garbage and toxins dumped into the oceans. Human-caused noise pollution also harms whales, leading to death, stranding, temporary and permanent hearing loss, and hemorrhaging around the brain, ears and other tissues from decompression sickness when whales are startled by sound and surface too quickly.

      Sonar used in naval training is a major cause of these debilitating and often deadly injuries to whales and other aquatic animals. With their sensitive hearing, marine mammals are particularly vulnerable. Sonar disrupts their ability to communicate, migrate, breathe, nurse, breed, feed, find shelter and, ultimately, survive.

      In 2010, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. navy estimated that over five years, navy activities in the Northwest Training Rangeincluding high-intensity sound waves from sonar and live-fire and bombing exerciseswould result in about 650,000 instances of harm to marine mammals. Though the navy has been conducting training exercises here for several decades, it recently sought permits to increase the intensity and pace.

      Extending south from Puget Sound in Washington State to the Lost Coast region of Northern California, the training range provides habitat for eight threatened or endangered species of whales, pinnipeds (including seals and sea lions) and otters.

      Whales don’t recognize international borders, so the David Suzuki Foundation and three other Canadian environmental groups, represented by Ecojustice lawyers and U.S. counsel, joined a U.S. district court case to stop the harmful activities.

      Blue, fin, sei, humpback, and southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered or threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The draft SARA Action Plan for three whale species confirms that acute underwater noise is one of three key threatswith pollution and reduced prey availabilitythat may hinder recovery in Canadian waters. Environmental organizations argue that approval of increased testing would undermine recovery efforts.

      Although information about the volume of noise from sonar systems is classified, we know the navy uses some mid-frequency, high-intensity systems over 235 decibels. In water, even humans exposed to 167 to 185 decibels can become disoriented.

      Sonar is a problem worldwide, affecting large areas of marine habitat. Naval exercises using sonar have been linked to whale and marine mammal stranding in Greece, the Bahamas, Canary Islands, Hawaii’s Hanalei Bay and North Carolina. Those are just the recorded beached whales, not the dead that sank. During the Bahamas mass whale stranding, sound levels exceeded 235 decibels and reached 160 decibels tens of kilometres away.

      Add to this the fact that increased shipping traffic and offshore industrial activity have boosted background underwater noise levels in the world’s oceans by an average of 15 decibels over the past 50 years.

      Although there’s no dispute that sonar can harass, injure and kill marine life, the extent of damage may not be fully understood for years. The hundreds of thousands of harmful instances deemed acceptable for the Northwest Training Range are likely minimized. Since the initial estimate, studies show damage happens at lower sound levels than previously thought.

      Canadian environmental groups are participating in the U.S. court case to ensure approval of military exercises will not frustrate our efforts to protect whales and help their populations recover. The court must consider information about the whales’ conservation status under SARA, and international law requires the U.S. to prevent serious harm to transboundary whales.

      Still, Canada has its own work to protect endangered whales and other marine life. Although a federal court gave B.C.’s killer whales stronger critical habitat protection last year, the government must live up to its responsibility to fully implement SARA and put recovery plans in place for more than 150 “waiting” species. It can’t only be a species-by-species approach. We need to commit to marine planning, federally and provincially, that is ecosystem-based and balances habitat requirements with economic activities.

      The 2012 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development warns that at our current rate of creating protected areas, Canada won’t meet its commitment to protect 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020 for many decades. We know relatively little about the marine world, yet we are having an increasing impact on oceans with little understanding of the consequences.

      Endangered species cannot recover and survive without efforts on both sides of the border to ensure they are protected from acoustic harm.




      Feb 26, 2013 at 4:41pm

      I cringe when I think about the damage done to whales through sonar, industrial ship and pleasure boat traffic. Imagine being an animal especially sensitive to sound and dependent upon echolocation for feeding and communication, and then reflect upon the consequences of sonar. The whales must be driven mad. And yet Canada refuses to protect marine life within its boundaries, under the aegis of 'protecting' national interests. What specious logic.


      Feb 26, 2013 at 6:10pm

      Acoustic problems (or in the extreme case, damage) to marine mammals is complex. The frequency band, amplitude, duration, and repetition rate of the source are important of course, but you also have to consider the range of sensitivity of the animals in question. The frequencies that marine mammals are sensitive to (and use) are very different between species. So a particular source can be a problem for one species and no problem at all (not even heard) by the others.

      Certain types of sonars have been proven to be an issue with certain whale species. The scientific literature backs much of what this article states.

      Very large ship propeller noise is also a big problem, but economics means this is often ignored. I'm surprised that the Northern Gateway pipeline opponents haven't picked up on this. Very large tankers and supertankers (think the ships going to the pipeline terminal and the proposed LNG terminal) generate very high dB and broad spectrum noise. Not as high amplitude as sonars, but higher amplitude than marine seismic airgun operations. And, in contrast with marine seismic which generally involves one pass of pulsing that repeats every ~20seconds, shipping noise is continuous and isn't just one pass, but repeats over and over and over and over as ships move in and out over months and years. Perhaps daily to these terminals.

      There are ongoing studies (and a few published studies now) about how shipping noise affects the behaviour of certain types of whales in certain locations.

      It would be wise for research to document marine mammal behaviour patterns now. That way, if the LNG and Gateway operations are pushed through by our governments, it will be possible to clearly determine how they affect marine mammal populations.


      Feb 27, 2013 at 7:56am

      re Forest;Canada can do nothing in int.waters.Would you have Canada stop all naval travel and shipping?Sonar has been used for years and now Suzuki needs something else to earn his gov. salary.No matter what man undertakes animals usually come in second,its existance.So why the northern gateway line?dosnt the bc gov. hope to sell LPG to offshore markets?where is that going to be shipped from? Economic groth has to happend or we get to be a have not coutry all we can do is ballance out the effects.


      Mar 3, 2013 at 6:38pm

      >> Would you have Canada stop all naval travel and shipping?

      No, of course not. Shipping noise (amplitudes especially, but also frequencies) depend on the propeller design - and largely due to the size of the ship. The point I made above is that the very large freighters/tankers are the problem ships when it comes to marine mammals and noise. Design/engineering may be able to help that, but it needs to be studied.

      >> Sonar has been used for years
      Yes, but again, it depends what kind of sonar. The type that the Suzuki article talks about is an extremely high amplitude sonar. Most sonars (even navy sonars) aren't an issue at all.

      Once again, you can't generalize.

      >> Economic groth has to happend or we get to be a have not coutry all we can do is ballance out the effects.

      It's our choice as to how we think it should grow... and who should benefit from the growth.