The New York Times ran an interesting article yesterday about a preliminary study showing that certain dolphins and toothed whales may be able to “decrease the sensitivity of their hearing to protect their ears from loud noise.” It all seems like reasonable stuff – even yours truly gets a shout out – but the takeaway message is misleading, as noted by my colleague, Michael Jasny, in a Times companion piece: New Dimension to Environmental Debate. The problem is that the article implies (as demonstrated by the title “Whales, Somehow, Are Coping With Humans’ Din”) that whales and dolphins are adaptable creatures that can deal with the rising stresses and impacts of all the noise we are dumping into the ocean (shipping, oil and gas exploration, Navy training with sonar and explosives, etc.). But it’s just not true. Yes, whales and dolphins are amazing creatures, but they are not “getting used to the din.” And does anyone seriously believe the noise from sonar and explosives is merely “din?”
All this study shows is that at least some marine mammals have a specific means of coping with the loud noises that they themselves make – a highly specialized defense that does not necessarily translate to human noise. Would it be great if whales could “plug their ears” every time humans bombarded them with sound? Yes, but that alone wouldn’t protect them from the vast majority of impacts associated with Navy training and testing activities, including death, permanent hearing loss, and lung injury. And, unfortunately, the record of strandings associated with Navy activities shows that marine mammals can’t protect themselves from these impacts. I don’t want to be a naysayer and I fully support this and other research that could provide tools for lessening the harm to marine mammals from man-made noise, but more research is needed, and this article, especially the headline, suggests we may have an easy fix – no need for humans to modify their behavior, the whales and dolphins will save themselves. It’s such a typical response when it comes to dealing with the harms we cause the environment – we try to discover technology or dream up justifications that allow us to continue business as usual.
Of course, there is a way for the Navy to lessen the harm its activities have on marine mammals: stop training and testing in biologically important areas. Remember, the Navy’s own estimates of harm paint a picture of unprecedented carnage: 33 million instances of “take,” including more than 5 million instances of temporary hearing loss, more than 15,000 instances of permanent hearing loss, almost 9,000 lung injuries, and more than 1,800 deaths from the use of sonar and explosives over a five-year period. The only way to drive these numbers down significantly and protect as many whales and dolphins as possible, is to keep training and testing out of the areas where the animals congregate the most (e.g., areas where marine mammals feed, breed, nurse, and migrate).
However interesting the study referenced in the New York Times article is, it doesn’t reflect reality. We simply can’t train tens of millions of wild animals to adjust to the ever increasing and lethal affects our industrialization of the sea is causing. The article doesn’t flush out this point and instead leaves a mistaken impression that we can teach animals to adjust to our presences when in fact the easiest solution is to avoid critical habitat in the first place.