The Cries Of Whales Falling On Deaf Ears?

As if it’s not bad enough that about 1/4 of marine mammals are threatened (with 35% being data deficient), scientists at the World Conservation Congress are now reporting that the background noise in our oceans has gotten so loud that it’s killing them – and the Supreme Court might do even more damage.

(Whales stranded at West Busselton Beach in Geographe Bay, WA. Photo: Tim Shingles)

The underwater cacophany caused by yacht motor and military tests are strong enough to destroy a whale’s inner ear. Hearing, of course, is one of the most (if not the most) important senses to cetaceans, who use noise to communicate, navigate, and hunt. Our “Acoustic Smog” is interfering with the ability of these cetaceans to migrate, feed and breed, they said on Thursday as a part of the testimony of Winter v. NRDC, the US Supreme Court case of environmental laws v. naval sonar testing.

Some forms of noise pollution are so powerful that “a whale can be killed outright by the shock,” said Carl Gustav Landin, head of marine programmes for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Sonars used by the military and the oil industry can exceed 230 decibels in volume, and can be deadly within a 0.6 to 1.2 mile radius.

The Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica filed suit with that information, causing U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper to order the Navy to shut down its high-intensity sonar whenever a whale or marine mammal is spotted within 1.25 miles of the ship. The Navy has fought that ruling, landing the case in the Supreme Court.

The ability to locate and track an enemy submarine . . . is vitally important to the survival of our naval strike force . . . and therefore, critical to the nation’s own security,” said U.S. Solicitor Gen. Gregory G. Garre, lead laywer for the Navy. These exercises are “in the judgment of the president and his top naval officers in the paramount interests of the United States,” he added.

The Justices appear split about whether military’s security needs outweigh the potential risks to marine mammals during training exercises. If this ruling is overturned, what future is left for marine mammals? Unless we significantly lower our acoustic garbage, they are doomed.

As we emit more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the oceans get more acidic, and noise travels up to 70% farther.”Ambient noise levels in the ocean … are set to increase significantly,” a recent study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, concluded. So even with curbing what we do now, the problem is getting worse. The result is an ever-increasing number of beachings, strandings and collisions as whales and other sea mammals disoriented or physically damaged by noise lose their bearings.

With marine mammal populations already in jeopardy, this might just be the nail in their coffin. Marine mammals have incredibly slow population growth rates due to their long gestation and weaning periods. They simply don’t breed fast enough to rebound from continual population losses. So if we can’t find some middle ground quickly, reducing our impacts on their populations without compromising our own security, the losses will be too much for them to overcome.

This is just another example of how our daily actions affect the world around us in ways we are wholly unable to prepare for. The bottom line is that marine mammals are in trouble, and we seem to be doing little to stop it. If this ruling is overturned by the Supreme Court, it will be a discouraging precedent that may plague conservationists to come. Two species of marine mammal have gone extinct in the last 50 years – if we aren’t careful, there will be many more to follow in our lifetime.

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