ACCOBAMS Agreement Joins Global Consensus Against High Intensity Sonar

PALMA DEL MAJORCA, SPAIN (November 11, 2004) -- In the third recent international government action calling for limits on the use of high intensity military sonar, the 16 member states of the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS) today approved a resolution calling for "extreme caution" in conducting activities that produce intense underwater noise, including military sonar activities. This action comes just two weeks after the European Parliament, seeking to protect marine mammals and other marine life, adopted a groundbreaking resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of high-intensity active naval sonars. It also comes days after the Spanish Ministry of Defense announced its intention to ACCOBAMS to prohibit all active sonar exercises off the coast of the Canary Islands, the site of many whale strandings coincident with military training exercises.

In the resolution approved today, ACCOBAMS recommended that ideally activities producing harmful noise, such as military sonar activities, "would not be conducted" in the Mediterranean and Black Seas pending the development of environmental guidelines. The ACCOBAMS is an international agreement established pursuant to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and consists of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Georgia, Greece, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Monaco, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Ukraine.

The resolution cites evidence linking the use of military sonar to the "strandings and deaths" of whales as well as concern over the general increase in noise levels in the world's oceans. By adopting the resolution, ACCOBAMS joins a quickly emerging global consensus of international institutions calling on states to halt or control rapidly expanding sources of ocean noise pollution. In addition to the action of the European Parliament two weeks ago, language has been adopted by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, and another resolution on the problem of ocean noise is scheduled to be taken up by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which is meeting next week in Bangkok, Thailand.

"Today's action shows that ocean noise pollution-especially from military activities-is one of the top international environmental concerns," said Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection project at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "We can and must take common sense steps to protect ocean wildlife from injury from high-intensity sonar and other noise sources. We have a duty to protect marine mammals and other species, not only for their sake but for our own."

To address the proliferation of high-intensity sonar and other noise sources as a global environmental problem, NRDC last year joined with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Humane Society International, and Ocean Futures Society and its president Jean-Michel Cousteau, to press for international solutions.

"The increasing use of intense noise-producing technology for militaries activities, oil and gas exploration, shipping, and shoreline development threatens the survival of numerous marine species, including entire populations of whales and porpoises," said Frederick O'Regan, President of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "This is a global problem that must be solved through international cooperation, and the resolution adopted today by the ACCOBAMS Agreement is another significant step toward that goal."

The military's use of tactical sonar is a particular concern, conservationists said. Military sonar generates intense noise and is used by nearly 60 percent of the U.S. Navy's nearly 300 ships and submarines. Mass stranding and mortality events associated with sonar exercises have occurred, among other places, off the coast of Washington State (2003), the Canary Islands (1985, 1986, 1989, 2002, 2004), the Bahamas (2000), Madeira (2000), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1998, 1999), and Greece (1996). According to an article in the scientific journal Nature, sonar use by the military has been linked to injuries in whales suggestive of severe decompression sickness or "the bends," the illness that can kill scuba divers who surface too quickly from deep water. Many scientists are concerned that stranded whales represent only a fraction of those that are injured.

In July, the report of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) found "compelling evidence" that entire populations of whales and other marine mammals are potentially threatened by increasingly intense man-made underwater noise both regionally and ocean-wide. The IWC is the leading international body concerned with the conservation and management of global whale stocks. The report expressed particular concern about the effects of high-intensity sonar, noting that the association with certain mass strandings "is very convincing and appears overwhelming."

In October, the European Parliament passed a resolution concluding that sonar use poses "a significant threat to marine mammals, fish and other ocean wildlife," and calling on member states to develop legislation and guidelines that reduce its impacts and to "immediately restrict the use of high intensity active naval sonar in waters falling under their jurisdiction."