High-Pitched Sounds like a Torpedo to the Brain
Imagine that you’re at a heavy metal rock concert, except the band is playing in your living room and there’s no escape from the deafening noise. After all, it’s your home. Where are you going to go?
Fortunately, it’s not often that rock bands take over our lives, unless we’re playing Rock Band®, of course. But for dozens of protected marine mammals like humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises, constant blasts of deafening noise—not from rock concerts but from Navy sonar training exercises—are a daily (and deadly) occurrence.
Recently, a coalition of conservation and American Indian groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to protect thousands of marine mammals from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the California, Oregon, and Washington coastlines. These waters are some of the most biologically significant and productive marine areas in the world, home to abundant and threatened marine species, including six endangered whale species, threatened Steller sea lions, threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead and rockfish species, and endangered leatherback sea turtles.
Like us, marine species rely on hearing for such basic functions as orientation and communication that are essential to survival. Unlike us, they rely heavily on a biosonar system called “echolocation,” which produces high frequency sounds so that their echoes can be interpreted for foraging and other important functions. So when the Navy starts blasting sonar from sound systems that operate at more than 235 decibels and travel across tens or even hundreds of miles of ocean —a loud rock concert is about 115 decibels—the sea’s mighty creatures tend to act a little crazy.
Studies have shown that sonar exposure can give whales the “bends,” otherwise known as decompression sickness, which is caused when one surfaces too quickly after a deep dive to, say, get away from extremely loud and deafening noises. Many marine species end up beaching themselves after experiencing decompression sickness symptoms such as bleeding around the brain, ears and other tissues, as well as large bubbles in the organs. The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands and Spain, among other places.
In 2010, NMFS regulators gave the Navy a five-year permit to increase sonar exercises without properly assessing risks to marine mammals. The plaintiffs argue that this violates both the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act since even the government admits that the use of sonar during the five-year plan will “result in the death or injury of 650,000 marine animals.” The lawsuit seeks to prevent this life-threatening exercise by getting NMFS to reassess the Navy’s permits using the latest science and to order the Navy to stay out of biologically critical areas, at least at certain times of the year.
Many of the lawsuit’s detractors argue that Navy warfare training is essential to national security. In fact, the Supreme Court said as much in a 2008 court case. However, many scientists believe that wildlife and warfare can co-exist—at least in theory—as long as the Navy takes common sense steps to lessen the training’s impact.
Said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research during a 2003 video that shows marine mammals visibly traumatized after a Navy sonar event, “The Navy needs these systems, so what they need to learn is when and where to practice. They have to practice nuclear weapon delivery too, but you don’t do it downtown in populated areas with people or wildlife.”
See the video for yourself and decide.