Navy Condemned for Harmful Sonar Testing

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With the help of the Berkeley City Council last night, whales around the world may be able to breathe easier.

The council passed a measure at their meeting calling attention to high levels of whale fatalities caused by a U.S. Navy tactic that employs a Low-Frequency Active Sonar System for defense testing. The system transmits sound waves through bodies of water that reverberate back when it hits a surface.

In the measure, the council requested that the City Manager write a letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy to express their strong objection to the use of this system.

"The whale is the closest thing to humans," said Councilmember Betty Olds, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Mayor Shirley Dean. "If anything happens to our whales, we certainly are in trouble too. It is nothing but cruelty."

Olds received information about this mistreatment of whales from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which alerted its members in a newsletter that four different species of whales were beached across a series of islands in the Bahamas. Seven of the eight whales died, despite rescue attempts.

The organization claims that the deaths were caused by a Navy battle group using loud "active" sonar in the vicinity. Government medical studies on the whales revealed that "all but one of (the whales) suffered hemorrhages in the inner ear - the likely result of a sonic blast."

Olds said that after she acquired the letter, she alerted the other council members, although a few questioned whether the issue pertains to the city.

"The Navy is notorious for not having enough concern for the environment," she said. "They are using it for their defense testing and they are not thinking about anything else. It is a Berkeley issue, it is a world issue, it is everybody's issue."

The Navy sonar is a tracking system for submarines that works on the principle of "echo-location," said Wil Burns, co-chair of the American Society of International Law Wildlife Interest Group. Whales, dolphins and porpoises, all part of a series of species called setaceas, receive the most harm because they rely so heavily on echo-location in the water.

The U.S. Navy has maintained that the incident is a coincidence.

Burns said the system, which the Navy plans on expanding to use over 80 percent of the world's oceans, alters the migration paths and breeding grounds of the whales. As they are forced to travel to new areas to escape the disruption, the whales expend more energy and it becomes harder for them to withstand the sonar.

"There are not a whole lot of areas to hide," Burns said.

The force of the sonar system, at 235 decibels, severely impairs tissue upon contact, he said.

"The sound alone could pierce flesh," Burns said. "The intensity and frequency of the sonar ripped the ear structures (of the whales) apart."

In the late 1980's, a number of whales were beached for the first time when sonar was used in the Canary Islands. NATO experiments off the coast of Greece in 1998 resulted in twelve beached whales, he said.


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