November 24, 2005

UN says sonar threatens dolphin, whale survival

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Naval maneuvers and submarine sonars in oceans are a new factor among many threatening dolphins, whales and porpoises that depend on sound to survive, the United Nations and marine experts said on Wednesday.

A U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) report included underwater sonar and military maneuvers as the smallest factor on a list of major threats to some 71 types of small marine mammals, known as cetaceans, at risk.

"While we know about other threats such as over-fishing, hunting and pollution, a new and emerging threat to cetaceans is that of increased underwater sonars," said Mark Simmonds of the Whale and Dolphin Society, who contributed to the report.

"These low frequency sounds travel vast distances, hundreds if not thousands of kilometers from the source," he told Reuters.

UNEP said underwater sonar and military maneuvers threatened more than 4 percent of species, although Simmonds indicated all were affected.

Some 70 percent of cetaceans were at risk from entanglement in fishing nets, 66 percent from hunting, 56 percent from pollution, 24 percent from habitat degradation, 15 percent from lack of food due to over-fishing, and 13 percent from culling.

In October, a coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Navy over its use of sonar, saying the ear-splitting sounds violated environmental protection laws.

The navy said it was studying the problem but said sonar was necessary for national defense.

Animal protection groups have for years lobbied to restrict the use of sonar, saying the sound blasts disorient the sound-dependent creatures and cause bleeding from the eyes and ears.

Simmonds said in recent years, western governments have developed stealthier submarines the detection of which requires more powerful, low-frequency sonars.

The report by UNEP and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) says species like the Beluga whale, Blanville's beaked whale and the Goosebeak whale are seriously at risk from noise pollution.

Researchers found that a stranding of 12 Goosebeak whales in the Ionian Sea in the 1990s coincided with NATO tests of an acoustic submarine detection system.

Other Goosebeaks were stranded off the Bahamas in 2000, and experts link that to military tests, the report said.

Tests on the bodies of seven whales that died near Gran Canaria in 2002 found hemorrhages and inner ear damage, which experts said was caused by high-intensity, low-frequency sonar used in the area, it added.

"This is a hugely serious concern as these animals need sound to navigate, to find their food, to communicate and to mate," said Simmonds.

There are no laws governing noise pollution in the world's oceans, but western governments, considered largely responsible with their increased military presence in the seas, say they need more research before taking action.

Charles Galbraith, a senior wildlife advisor to the British government, told Reuters the report highlighted a potential problem. "But the issue is still in a relatively gray area in terms of scientific proof and we need to do more research before the government can review its defense systems," he said.

Seismic exploration used in the hunt for undersea oil and gas and the increased movement of large ships may also cause problems for cetaceans, the report said.