On Thursday, some of the judges of the US Supreme Court indicated that they favored slapping down a lower court ruling that would curb the use of powerful sonar in US Navy training exercises off the southern California coast. They stated that even if the sonar harmed the sea mammals, national security would take priority.
This has touched off a controversy over presidential power and the military’s obligation to follow environmental laws which require federal agencies to consider and mitigate the environmental impacts of their activities. All the while, the Navy plans to conduct a series of 14 submarine hunting exercises using its active sonar.
The World Conservation Congress has said that the underwater cacophony caused by military ships has become so intense that it is killing whales. The sonar used by the Navy is so powerful that, “a whale can be killed outright by the shock,” said Carl Gustav Landin, head of marine programs for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Eighty-five decibels can cause permanent damage to the human ear. The sonar used by the Navy can exceed 230 decibels in volume, and can be deadly within a one or two kilometer radius.
The problem is only getting worse, since the acidification of oceans caused by rising sea temperatures reduces sound absorption in the water by up to 40 percent. This means that noise will only travel much farther.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and five other environmental groups filed suit, saying that the Navy had failed to properly assess the potential impact to marine mammals, which was in violation of federal environmental laws. A California judge, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, agreed with the claim. She issued a preliminary injunction, which ordered the Navy to restrict the power and location of its sonar testing. The Bush administration then moved to exempt the Navy from any environmental laws by stating that the sonar training exercises were essential to national security.
The Navy has repeatedly downplayed the impact of active sonar on marine mammals even after they found concerns when they completed their own environmental assessment. According to Robert Kendall, the attorney representing the National Resources Defense Council, that assessment predicted the sonar exercises would disturb or injure an estimated 170,000 marine mammals, including permanent injury to more than 500 rare beaked whales.
Unfortunately for the Navy’s and the President’s vanity, whales and dolphins have much larger frontal lobes than they do. Whales are highly social beings and have a highly complex form of communication with each other. This can only be described as language. They even address each other by name. They are intelligent beings.
My grandfather had a record, back in the sixties, which was a recording of whale “sounds” (as they called it back then). He loved to listen to it. He was one of our country’s leading men of science (as head of Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio), and he was certain that it was a language, long before science caught up.
As far as I’m concerned--killing a living, intelligent mammal is the same as killing a human being.
The claim that the exercise is necessary for national security is based on the obvious contribution to readiness and strategic access. But it also provides political and diplomatic returns. Exercises demonstrate US resolve and capability to project military power anywhere in the world in support of US national interests and in support of US allies.
Does this mean that we need to have “death causing” military exercises in our own waters and on our own soil?
Just recently, the mayor of Toledo, Ohio told a battalion of armed Marines to get out of his city. He ordered about 200 Marines who traveled from Grand Rapids, Michigan to halt their military exercises and leave his city. The armed Marines—members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, had showed up to participate in an urban warfare training exercise, one of several planned across the nation by the Pentagon.
Whales can’t shoot back. But I’m sure if the Marines showed up in one the hollers, here in southern Ohio, they might get some real training. We’re armed in these hills.