IUCN Calls for Urgent Action on Sonar Implicated in Global Strandings of Whales

BANGKOK, THAILAND (November 24, 2004) - The IUCN-World Conservation Union adopted a resolution today calling for urgent action by states to reduce the impacts of high-intensity naval sonar systems on beaked whales and other vulnerable species. The IUCN is the world's leading body for conservation policy, consisting of over 70 national governments and more than 400 non-governmental organizations, and the decisions it takes at its quadrennial meetings set the global agenda for conservation over the next four years.

The resolution, entitled "Undersea Noise Pollution," marks the fourth international action taken within the last two months calling for limits on the use of military sonar and other sources of damaging underwater sound. The United States abstained from voting on the resolution and declined to engage in discussion of its language.

In the resolution adopted overwhelmingly today at the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok, the IUCN recognizes undersea noise as a form of pollution; calls on states to avoid the use of intense noise sources in the habitat of vulnerable species or where marine mammals and endangered species may be concentrated; and urges states to work through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to develop mechanisms for the control of this emergent problem.

"The IUCN resolution is the most comprehensive action on ocean noise pollution ever taken by the international community," said Joel R. Reynolds, Senior Attorney and Director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project of the Natural Resources Defense Council ("NRDC"), principal sponsor of the resolution. "It sets a clear path forward for international progress on high-intensity sonar and other sources of intense noise. After two months of action by so many international bodies on this issue, we hope that the United States has begun to get the message."

The IUCN joins a quickly emerging global consensus of international institutions calling on states to halt or control rapidly expanding sources of ocean noise pollution. Its action comes two weeks after the 16 member states of the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS) adopted a resolution urging "extreme caution" in conducting activities that produce intense noise in the Mediterranean and Black Seas; and four weeks after the European Parliament adopted a groundbreaking resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of high-intensity naval sonars.

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."