Whales and dolphins threatened by naval sonar, says UN report devices

A A A

High-intensity naval sonar poses a serious threat to whales, dolphins and porpoises that depend on sound to survive, says a report by the United Nations Environment Programme.

The study lends the first official support to claims by environmental groups that military manoeuvres are responsible for the increasing incidence of mass whale beachings. "We know about other threats such as over-fishing, hunting and pollution [but] a new and emerging threat to cetaceans is that of increased underwater sonars," said Mark Simmonds, of the Whale and Dolphin Society. "These low-frequency sounds travel vast distances, hundreds if not thousands of kilometres from the source."

A coalition of environmental groups launched by, among others, Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, sued the US Navy in October, over its use of sonar, saying the ear-splitting sounds violated environmental protection laws. The lawsuit is aimed at vessels that use mid-frequency sonar to locate submarines and underwater objects. The navy has 60 days to respond.

Tests on the bodies of seven whales that died near Gran Canaria in 2002 found haemorrhages and inner-ear damage, which experts said was caused by high-intensity, low-frequency sonar used in the area, it added. There are no laws governing noise pollution in the oceans, but western governments, considered largely responsible with their increased military presence in the seas, say they need more research before taking action.

The Australian Department of Defence has admitted two minehunters used short-range, high-frequency sonar to search for a 360-year-old Dutch wreck off Marion Bay, where 110 pilot whales died in two beachings last month.

But the defence officials denied any responsibility for the strandings, saying the first one happened while the ships were still anchored off the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, a significant distance to the west. "The later presence of the two ships in the area is purely coincidental," a spokesman said.

Environmentalists say the ear-splitting sounds can disrupt the navigation systems of whales and dolphins. Underwater seismic testing by the oil and gas industries has also been implicated. But the closest exploration work to Marion Bay last week was in the waters between Tasmania and Victoria, 275 miles north.

Tasmania has one of the world's highest rates of whale beachings, and Marion Bay is a notorious blackspot. In 1998, 110 pilot whales died after beaching themselves there.

And in 2004, 115 pilot whales and bottle-nosed dolphins died in two strandings off nearby Maria Island, prompting the Australian government to set up a national database of such incidents.

Wildlife officials said that the latest deaths may have been caused by the animals becoming disoriented by the topography of the area, on the island's south-eastern coast. Mark Pharaoh, of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, said: "The most common belief here is that since these strandings are so regular, it's basically difficult country for a whale to navigate in."

Another wildlife officer, Ingrid Albion, said: "Only one of them has to get into trouble and make a wrong turn, and they'll actually call the rest of the pod to them."

Researchers at the University of Tasmania have suggested beachings may be linked to a 10-year cycle of increased wind strengths over the Southern Ocean. Changes in the earth's magnetic field and pursuit by killer whales are among other theories.

Animal protection groups have for years lobbied to restrict the use of sonar, saying the sound blasts disorient the sound-dependent creatures and cause bleeding from the eyes and ears.

Mr Simmonds added: "This is a hugely serious concern because these animals need sound to navigate, to find their food, to communicate and to mate."

A report by the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee said the link between sonar and whale deaths was "very convincing and appears overwhelming".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Multi Skilled Engineer - Electrical / Mechanical / Maintenance

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A multi-skilled engineer with a...

Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada