Committee Drowns Dolphins and Whales with Words

A life wasted: intense sound drives some whales and dolphins to shore, while others just sink. Photo from NMFSThe failure of U.S. regulatory agencies in stopping the emission of ear-splitting noise into the oceans is written in dead whales and dolphins driven to the shores of the Bahamas, Azores, Canary Islands, Greece and Mexico.

But, in the face of this tragic evidence, a million-dollar effort to resolve the conflict between whales and the industries that emit these sounds appears to be sliding towards allowing even higher levels of this deadly sound pollution.

The Marine Mammal Commission, historically the most steadfast government agency in advocating for cetaceans, has convened an advisory committee at the request of Congress. In its second session this committee of "stakeholders" debated different models of calculating just how much damage could afflict marine life given different levels and duration of sound emitted. The committee, which comprises representatives from the shipping, military, oil and gas exploration, research and environmental communities, actually agreed on very little. But the pre-ordained conclusion the group is being directed towards was sadly apparent: that loud shipping and louder military sonar and seismic airguns are inevitable and that the best we can do is try to mitigate some of the harm they cause.

Ever since the Navy tested its Low Frequency Active (LFA) sonar and decided the regulations in place to protect marine mammals were too restrictive, protections have been falling and whales have been dying. We really have no idea how many, because whales tend to sink when they die. Researcher Robin Baird estimates that only about 5% of Gray Whales who die while traveling the highly populated California coast are found.

But none of these niggling details daunted the select scientific panel that presented its preliminary conclusions to the advisory committee. Based on the torture of a couple of dolphins and belugas who were subjected to ever louder levels of sound, the panel declared that it took over 183 decibels of sound to cause temporary deafness. This condition was described as no big deal-that it happens to us all the time. But at about 10-20 decibels higher comes the onset of permanent deafness-which is where the panel would like to say injury begins.

The problem is, the real world doesn't corroborate these numbers. The cetaceans who stranded in the Bahamas in March 2000 after naval exercises, appear to have been driven to their deaths at sound levels thousands of times lower.

As part of the public comment period allowed at the hearing, AWI weighed in, offering Section IV of the U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research and Training. This document states, "Unless the contrary is established, investigators should consider that procedures that cause pain or distress in human beings may cause pain or distress in other animals." The Navy has set 145 decibels as the maximum safe level for human beings in water. We proposed that this level be the maximum level of ocean sound pollution permitted globally, with the caveat that this level may still be too high in many areas.

Our colleagues on the advisory committee will resist any attempt to expand the sonic assault on the oceans, but we are concerned their cautions may be ignored. We invite all interested to consider attending one of the next meetings of this committee for a rare-and scary-glimpse into the shady psuedo-science behind the rules governing marine mammals and noise.

Upcoming meetings (2004):

* July 27-29: Crown Plaza Union Square, San Francisco

* Sept. 28-30: London (venue to be determined)

* Nov. 29-Dec. 3: New Orleans (venue to be determined)

Meeting details can be found at www.mmc.gov/sound.