Common Sense Measures Could Save Marine Mammals without Compromising Military Readiness

LOS ANGELES (February 10, 2005) -- The world's most powerful military alliance was challenged today to change how it conducts naval exercises in order to prevent needless injury and death to whales, porpoises and other marine life.

A letter sent by a coalition of international conservation organizations, representing millions of members, urges the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its member states to reduce harm from high-intensity sonar systems, which blast extraordinarily loud sound underwater to locate submarines and surface vessels. Use of high-intensity sonar by the United States Navy and other militaries has expanded despite mounting evidence that it can devastate marine life.

Those petitioning NATO include NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Green Cross International (headed by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev), Humane Society International (HSI), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), Ocean Futures Society and its founder Jean-Michel Cousteau.

The letter, addressed to the Secretary General and the 26 ambassadors of NATO's member nations, details a growing list of mass strandings and mortalities associated with the use of high-intensity sonar. It calls upon NATO and its member nations to introduce common-sense measures to reduce harm from high-intensity sonar exercises. Those measures include avoiding concentrations of marine mammals, particularly the habitat of sensitive beaked whales; reducing sonar intensity; and conducting post-operational surveys for dead or injured whales and other marine life. The measures would not restrict the use of sonar in times of war or heightened threat.

"The needless infliction of harm to whales and other marine life from high-intensity sonar is an international problem that demands an international solution," said Joel Reynolds, director of NRDC's Marine Mammal Protection Project. "We are asking NATO and its member countries to take the lead in adopting common sense measures to reduce that harm. NATO can maintain defense readiness by requiring sonar training that doesn't imperil whole populations of marine mammals."

Overwhelming scientific evidence links powerful military sonar with distress, injury and mass mortality of whales and other marine life, and this has led to a growing international consensus that nations and military alliances urgently need to address the problem of ocean noise. In recent months, several major international bodies including the European Parliament, the International Whaling Commission and the IUCN-World Conservation Union, have called for restrictions on high-intensity sonar.

Some nations already have begun to tailor use of high-intensity sonar to minimize harm to marine life. For example, the Spanish Ministry of Defense recently announced that it will prohibit active sonar exercises off of the Canary Islands, the site of many whale strandings correlated with naval exercises. The U.S. Navy limited multi-ship active sonar operations in an area off of the Bahamas after a mass stranding there in 2000, and, in 2003, agreed in a court settlement to limit training with low-frequency sonar in all waters except small areas in the western Pacific.

A 2003 article in the scientific journal Nature found that intense, active sonar may kill certain marine mammal species by giving them decompression sickness or "the bends;" the same illness that can kill scuba divers who surface too quickly from deep water. In July 2004, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission cited "overwhelming evidence" of the connection between use of high-intensity sonar and mass mortalities of whales. In October 2004, the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of sonar until its impacts are better understood.

Even NATO's own undersea research center made findings several years ago that support the link between high-intensity sonar and damage to marine mammals. The center correlated a mass stranding of Cuvier's beaked whales off Greece in 1996 with sonar tests conducted by the NATO vessel Alliance.

Mass strandings and mortalities associated with high-intensity sonar exercises have occurred, among other places, in the Haro Strait off the coast of Washington State (2003), the Canary Islands (2004, 2002, 1989, 1986, 1985), the Bahamas (2000), Madeira (2000), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1999, 1998), and in Greece (1996). Government agencies and independent scientists are now investigating the stranding last month in North Carolina of 37 whales from three different species, which coincided with a U.S. Navy high-intensity sonar training exercise in the area. Some scientists suspect that the majority of marine mammals harmed by sonar do not strand, and therefore are never counted.

The coalition's letter asks NATO to review its sonar policies at a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the alliance's governing board, which meets weekly in Brussels.