May 31, 2005

University to Research Sound Effects on Dolphins

HONOLULU -- A bill passed by the U.S. House last week would provide $2.2 million to the University of Hawaii to research the effects of sound on whales and dolphins.

Environmentalists have argued that the technology such as sonar could harm sea life which use sound waves to communicate.

Paul Nachtigall, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said there is a big concern about the hearing of animals in the ocean, particularly loud sounds placed in the water.

Researchers want to know what they can do to help, "but the difficulty is of 85 species of whales and dolphins, we only know what 11 species hear," he said.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie announced the inclusion of the money in the proposed defense budget Thursday and pointed out concerns over the connection between fatal whale strandings and loud sounds emitted into the ocean.

In 2002, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave the U.S. Navy a five-year exemption to federal rules protecting marine mammals from incidental injury, but required the Navy to investigate the effects of low-frequency sonar on whale behavior.

A series of reports from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences call for establishing a center for objective research on the effects of sound on marine mammals' hearing and physiology, said Abercrombie, D-Hawaii.

The University of Hawaii Marine Mammal Research Program has taken the first step to meet the council's needs and would not require additional buildings, he said.

Nachtigall has been working with Alexandre Supin of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences on the question of marine mammal hearing for about four years. Twice each year Supin is a visiting professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

The researchers hope that a method they developed to test the hearing of sperm whales by looking at brain wave patterns will also be useful for studying the hearing of other whales, Nachtigall said.


On the Net:

Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology: http://www.hawaii.edu/HIMB/