Hi-tech military sonar systems 'are killing Britain's whales and dolphins'

As mass strandings of whales increase around the world, new evidence shows naval equipment may be to blame

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Whales and dolphins are being killed around Britain's coasts by military sonar equipment, new research suggests.

Whales and dolphins are being killed around Britain's coasts by military sonar equipment, new research suggests.

The research on corpses of stranded whales, at the Zoological Society of London, indicates that they have suffered a kind of decompression sickness after surfacing too fast when the sonar interferes with their navigation systems.

Tomorrow an alliance of more than 30 conservation and animal welfare groups, including the WWF and the RSPCA, will hand in a petition to the Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, demanding an inquiry.

And this week a meeting of the International Whaling Commission in South Korea will discuss the increasing pressure on whale populations, which includes a call to resume commercial whaling,

Mass strandings of whales have been increasing around the world, and there is growing evidence that modern military sonar, designed to detect the latest ultra-quiet submarines, is responsible.

Two years ago a judge ordered the US Navy to suspend trials of a low-frequency sonar system amid fears that it was causing the beaching of whales in the Bahamas. And the Spanish government introduced a sonar exclusion zone around the Canary Islands after whales were stranded during Nato naval exercises in 2002.

Now an investigation by The Independent on Sunday and BBC1's Countryfile has revealed that a similar system used by the Royal Navy may be a factor in increasing numbers of strandings of whales, dolphins and porpoises around the UK coast.

Dr Paul Jepson, co-ordinator of marine mammal strandings research at the Zoological Society of London, has found 15 dolphins, porpoises and beaked whales with nitrogen bubbles in their livers or kidneys, suggesting they have suffered decompression sickness similar to "the bends" that afflict divers who surface too quickly.

Dr Jepson said: "For many years, scientists thought that whales and dolphins were immune to conditions like decompression sickness or the bends. These new findings tell us this probably isn't the case."

He added that this could be caused by "severe disruption to normal diving behaviour" by sonar. Whales rely on sonar to navigate, and this is thought to be drowned out by the machines. Disoriented, they are washed up dead or dying.

British conservationists are particularly concerned about the waters around the Hebrides, one of the most important areas both for whales and for naval exercises. Skippers of whale-watching boats report that sightings of the most common species, such as minke and humpback whales, seem to fall dramatically when there are naval exercises.

They are also worried that a new, high-decibel system - called Sonar 2087 and due to be brought into service next year - will make the problem worse, and are calling on the Royal Navy to suspend trials.

Liz Sandeman, co-founder of Marine Connection, a conservation group, says: "This is a low-frequency sonar which is known to travel great distances. A single ping can last between 60 and 100 seconds and reach 235 decibels."

But the Royal Navy says the system is vital to protect its forces, that there are other sources of marine noise, and that there is no evidence that their ships are to blame. Alex Lochrane, a former submarine commander, says: "As a maritime nation we have to maintain our control of the seas. Sonar 2087 represents for us the culmination of many years of R&D and the best technological solution to the current threat."

'Countryfile' is on BBC1 at 11.30am today

CASUALTY LIST

South Florida, March: 80 dolphins beached as US Navy sub trails sonar off Florida Keys. 30 died.

North Carolina, January: 39 whales die after US Navy uses sonar.

Australia, November 2004: 17 whales diein Bass Strait; 50 stranded 300 miles away; another 165 whales and dolphins found dying - all coincide with sonar activities and seismic surveys.

Hawaii, July 2004: 200 whales crowd into shallow waters within range of Japanese and US Navy ships on exercise.

Canary Islands, July 2004: 14 whales stranded in Canary Islands during Nato exercises involving sonar. Post mortems reveal they died from decom-pression injuries. Strandings in 1985, 1988, 1989, 1991 and 2002 all coincide with naval exercises.

Washington state, May 2003: USS Shoup tests its sonar in Haro Strait. "Dozens of porpoises and killer whales seemed to stampede at once."

Bahamas, March 2000: Several spotted dolphins and whales stranded within 24 hours of US Navy ships using sonar in area.

Virgin Islands, 1999: Four beaked whales die following US Navy anti-submarine exercises.

Greece, 1996: 12 beaked whales die following Nato exercises.

Japan, 1990: Six whales die after US Navy test military sonar.

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