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


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".

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own