Whaling Commission's Science Panel Says Marine Mammals Threatened by Man-Made Noise

LOS ANGELES (July 20, 2004) - The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) says there is "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, according to a report released this week. The panel is the scientific arm of the IWC, the leading international body concerned with the conservation and management of global whale stocks. IWC is holding its annual meeting this week in Sorrento, Italy.

The Scientific Committee expressed particular concern about increasingly intense underwater noise from oil and gas exploration and from military sonar. "The weight of accumulated evidence now associates mid-frequency, military sonar with atypical beaked whale mass strandings," according to the Committee. "The evidence is very convincing and appears overwhelming." The Committee noted that species other than beaked whales, such as pygmy sperm whales, minke whales and striped dolphins have also stranded in these events.

Last week, a coalition of conservation and animal welfare groups threatened to sue the U.S. Navy unless it agreed to adopt common sense measures to mitigate harm to marine mammals and fish caused by mid-frequency sonar. The coalition includes NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), The Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS) and Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society.

The coalition's action followed an incident earlier this month off the coast of Kaua'i, Hawai'i in which a pod of approximately 200 melon-headed whales stampeded to shallow water, and one died, during U.S. and Japanese naval exercises. Mid-frequency sonar is being investigated as a possible cause of the incident.

This week's report by the IWC Scientific Committee also raised concern that "assessments of stranding events do not account for animals that are severely affected or died but did not strand." In other words, scientists suspect that the number of marine mammals which strand because of intense man-made underwater noise may be only a fraction of the total number harmed or killed.

The Scientific Committee also expressed "great concern" over the impacts of oil and gas exploration on large whales, noting that there "are now several cases of impacts" on large whales from these activities. The report cited an incident in 2002 in which humpback whales stranded off the coast of Brazil in unusual numbers during an underwater oil and gas survey of the area that generated intense sound pulses.

The scientists unanimously called for "strong, prompt action and particular vigilance" in cases that involve highly endangered populations, such as the western north pacific gray whale, or "insidious degradation of a species' critical habitat…." Specifically, the Committee said that critical habitat designation, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and ocean zoning should be investigated as means to protect marine mammal populations from man-made underwater noise.