A group of about 20 killer whales and dozens of porpoises were forced to flee the waters near the San Juan Islands on Monday after a Navy ship passed by with its active sonar blasting. The incident, the latest example of the harmful impacts of loud sonar broadcasts on sensitive marine mammals, has brought increased attention to the Pentagon’s request for a blanket exemption from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
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Whale-watch operator Tom McMillen captured the shrill, repetitive whistle produced by the sonar from the 511-foot USS Shoup while using an underwater microphone to listen to whale calls. Within minutes, the killer whales (also known as orcas) and porpoises were swimming and leaping away from the deafening tones. Videotape of the incident was shot by whale researchers from the Center For Whale Research on San Juan Island, and made available to television stations in the Seattle, Washington area.
While the Navy has not yet confirmed what kind of sonar the USS Shoup was using, some experts believe it may be the same type of mid-frequency sonar that contributed to the deaths of eight whales in the Bahamas in March 2000.
“This latest incident points out the dangerous impacts that some military activities can have on marine mammals and other species,” said Susan Holmes, Earthjustice senior legislative representative. “These problems will only get worse if the Defense Department gets blanket exemptions from environmental protections.”
The Department of Defense, with support from the Bush Administration, is seeking exemptions from five federal laws protecting the environment and public health, including the ESA, MMPA, the Clean Air Act, and two laws governing toxic waste cleanups. The proposals are included in the fiscal year 2004 Defense authorization bill now before Congress.
The House Resources Committee passed a bill on Wednesday approving the DOD’s requested exemptions from the ESA and MMPA. The House Armed Services Committee is expected to take up the measure next week, and the bill could also be debated next week on the Senate floor.
Earthjustice is involved in ongoing litigation seeking federal protection for the group of orcas affected by Monday’s sonar incident. The National Marine Fisheries Service has declined to provide protection under the Endangered Species Act for these whales, known as the “Southern Residents,” despite acknowledging that the unique group is at risk of going extinct. (See December 18, 2002, press release for additional information.)