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NOAA steps up, announces new active sonar oversight with possible off-limits areas

News, Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, Sonar 2 Comments »

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has announced a series of sweeping new initiatives designed to push the Navy forward in its efforts to understand and mitigate the impacts of mid-frequency active sonar on marine mammals.  In response to a request from the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), which asked NOAA to conduct a comprehensive review of this controversial issue, Lubchenco outlined several important new initiatives which mark a more active role for NOAA in moving both the science and policy efforts forward.  Previously, NOAA had worked closely with the Navy on its Environmental Impact Statements, but had largely rubber-stamped the resultant Navy mitigation plans, which consistently rejected any alternatives that set biologically important portions of US coastal zones off-limits to sonar training.

The new NOAA initiatives include four key elements, three of which dovetail closely with long-time concerns and requests from environmental organizations for NOAA to more actively protect areas of biological significance from both Navy and oil and gas noise, and three of which will help fill key data gaps identified by research scientists over the past decade.

  • First, NOAA will work with other civilian agencies (e.g., MMS) to reinitiate comprehensive aerial cetacean and sea turtle surveys, in order to establish more fine-scale population estimates, especially in Navy training ranges.  Currently, many Navy EISs rely on coarse, regional population estimates, leading to unrealistic estimations of population density being spread evenly across large areas.
  • Second, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service will host a workshop aimed at developing a plan to create a comprehensive “ocean noise budget.”  This is a long-time desire of both researchers and environmentalists, and would identify areas in the ocean where human noise is relatively sparse, as well as areas in which new human activity would not add substantially to already high noise levels.
  • Third, another NMFS workshop will be organized to identify marine mammal “hot spots” of particular biological significance.  All three of these initiatives tie together nicely to bring acoustics into the Obama administration’s stated aim of moving toward more coherent Marine Spatial Planning, a sort of ocean zoning approach that would help guide human activities toward areas where they will have less impact on animals.  In a clear indication that NOAA may take a more proactive role in pushing the Navy to leave some areas out of its training zones, the letter stresses that “Protecting important marine mammal habitat is generally recognized to be the most effective mitigation measure currently available.”
  • Finally, NOAA has already begun taking an active role in ongoing meetings between the Navy and the National Resources Defense Council; these meetings were part of a legal settlement and are designed to resolve outstanding differences about Navy active sonar operational and mitigation measures.  Lubchenco notes that “NOAA’s participation will enhance these discussions and help resolve differing views….I also expect the Navy to be open to new ideas and approaches to mitigation that are supported by the best available science.”

Indeed, including “spatio-temporal restrictions” (areas or times when activity is prohibited) in active sonar permitting has been a major sticking point between the Navy and NRDC and other environmentalists, and is something the Navy has consistently and explicitly rejected in the first round of sonar EISs, which have been finalized over the past year for most of the key Navy ranges (California, Hawaii, East Coast and just this week, the Gulf of Mexico), none of which included any limits on where and when the Navy could do sonar training. “The Navy’s Southern California range is over 120,000 nautical miles in size — about the size of California itself,” NRDC’s Michael Jasny points out. “The Bush administration did not put a square mile of this vast area off limits to sonar.”

All in all, this is a remarkable and very productive first step for this administration as it enters the long-contentious waters of active sonar regulation, ocean noise in general.  You can download Lubchenco’s detailed letter at the NOAA website.

NOAA sets beluga critical habitat, but says it won’t change Alaska’s urbanized Cook Inlet

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NOAA has released its proposed critical habitat for the endangered Cooks Inlet beluga population: it includes the entire upper part of the inlet (which includes Anchorage and Wasilla), and a coastal stretch of the lower part of the inlet as well.  This isolated population of belugas experienced a population crash in the 1980’s which is widely blamed on over-harvesting by native subsistence hunters, but has not recovered since the hunting was limited.  Pollution, limited salmon runs, and noise are all considered likely factors in the population’s struggle to survive.  Over the past few years, it has become apparent from field research studies and monitoring around seismic surveys that belugas are among the more sensitive cetacean species to sound; they tend to avoid noise sources at greater distances than most other whales, often tens of kilometers.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, NOAA officials said the proposed rule and the prior listing of belugas could trigger some changes to major development projects over the next decade — seismic drilling for offshore oil and gas, and a dock for the Chuitna coal strip-mine proposed on the west side of Cook Inlet, for example, the agency said.  NOAA said it doesn’t anticipate the stepped-up scrutiny will result in rejection of energy projects in the Inlet. The rule would require other federal agencies to consult with the federal fisheries service before approving projects in the proposed critical habitat areas. Ongoing construction at the Port of Anchorage, planned to continue for several more years, includes monitoring for belugas that may be close enough to be seriously disturbed, though the Port Director said they will be submitting comments on the proposed designation.

UPDATE: Public comments on the critical habitat designation have been extended to March 2010. A NOAA biologist assured locals attending a public meeting that the new designation would not add “onerous” oversight.

Mediterranean Beaked Whale BRS Cruise: No Tags, New Passive Monitoring Technique

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A five-week beaked whale Behavioral Response Study in the Mediterranean concluded in early September with a mixed bag of results: while researchers were unable to affix D-tags to any beaked or pilot whales, they were quite successful in using a new mobile Passive Acoustic Monitoring system which could be very useful in years to come. The study was largely aiming to track whales’ responses to various (low to moderate) levels of mid-frequency active sonar sounds using D-tags on the animals; previous Behavioral Response Studies using such “controlled exposures” have taken place on Navy instrumented ranges where the local populations are presumably familiar with sonar sounds, so they may respond differently than whales who have not heard these sounds before.  However, due to many periods of rough seas, as well as the inherent difficulties of finding, getting close to, and attaching tags to beaked whales (who dive for over an hour and come to the surface only briefly), no D-tags were deployed on whales, and no controlled exposures took place. However, a document prepared before the cruise, summarizing previous BRS results, is well worth reading: see especially page 8, which includes a detailed analysis of beaked whale responses to sonar and orca sounds: in both cases, the whales cut short foraging dives, but returned to the surface more slowly than normal, not more steeply as is sometimes assumed, and they clearly moved directly away from the sounds.

Beaked Whale (click for cruise blog home page)

Beaked Whale (click for cruise blog home page)

However, researchers made the most of two other purposes of the cruise, both of which made use of a new passive acoustic monitoring technique.  The research took place on an extremely quiet research vessel, from which two hydrophone streamers were deployed, each of which had two hydrophones on it.  This gave listeners on the ship four separated sources from which to record and analyze sounds, so that most sounds could be quite well localized (direction and distance).  In addition, researchers deployed floating “sonobuoys” that provided more listening stations during times when groups of beaked whales were nearby.  This network of hydrophones provides much of the information that is provided by permanent bottom-mounted hydrophones on Navy ranges, and offers the potential to both find and monitor beaked whales in any location.  The hydrophone arrays were also collecting basic sound budget data, which will provide a better sense of the noises (both natural and man-made) that ocean creatures hear on a routine basis.  Click through for links to specific blog posts of interest, and a description of one day’s close encounter. Read the rest of this entry »

UK War Games Near Dolphin Conservation Area Spur Concern

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UK environmental groups have raised concerns about the move of a Europe’s biannual Naval exercise to waters outside Moray Firth, which is home to Scotland’s only bottlenose dolphin population, and an area in which an increasing number of marine species has been seen in recent years. Operation Joint Warrier will involve 20 ships, 4 subs, and 40 aircraft, and lasts from October 13-22.  Sarah Dolman, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society’s noise campaign manager, said that a full environmental assessment should have taken place before any such operations near a Special Conservation Area, continuing that ‘the Ministry of Defence should ensure compliance with legislation before it moves its exercise into this important, and protected habitat.”  A spokesman for the MOD says that active sonar will not be used within the Firth, and is limited areas more than 30 miles from the Conservation Area, assuring that noise will be within tolerable levels within the Firth’s important habitats.  After a stranding event last summer which was never conclusively tied to sonar, but appeared related to similarly distant military exercises, the area will be closely watched by all this month, I’m sure. For more detail, see articles in The Telegraph and BBC.

Scottish Loch Whale Perhaps Trapped by Fish Farm Noises

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean Comments Off on Scottish Loch Whale Perhaps Trapped by Fish Farm Noises

A northern bottlenose whale that wandered deep into Loch Eli recently is one of ten that have either stranded or seen in lochs in recent years.  Researchers wonder whether noises at sea may be “herding” normally deep-water whales into the narrow lochs, where they become disoriented and perhaps also trapped by other noises.  In the recent case, whale was only persuaded to leave when a nearby fish farm had turned off its seal-scaring device. Volunteers from the Marine Life Rescue Unit then used underwater loudspeakers to play sounds of their own – including a recording of a hunting killer whale — to push the 10-metre whale back out to sea. In recent days, one such whale died after being helped toward sea, and one survived.

A northern bottlenose whale stranded in Scotland (click for London Times article)

A northern bottlenose whale stranded in Scotland (click for London Times article)

The seal-scaring “acoustic harassment device” is “an awful siren sound — very, very loud,” said Dr Patrick Miller of the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews. “There’s quite a bit of research that says they have more effect on cetaceans than seals. It may very well be that the seal-scarer had a big effect on keeping the animal inside the loch.”

“The whales are migrating at this time of year, so we normally do see more of them, but to have so many washing up is a little strange. There’s an enormous amount of man-made noise out at sea off the northwest of Scotland, and we can’t rule out that this is what causing them to come ashore,” said Mark Simmonds, Director of Science for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

“Although we think of these as open ocean animals, for so many to come in there may be something we’re missing,” said Dr. Millar. “Maybe they’re looking for food. We just know so little about the animals it’s difficult to make strong conclusions.”

Blue Whale Call Rates Rise Dramatically Near Seismic Survey

Science, Seismic Surveys 5 Comments »

A new study published in Biological Letters found that a seismic survey in wide bay at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway caused blue whales feeding and socializing nearby to double or triple their call rates.  The calls were near-range communication signals, rather than the long, loud songs that are heard over hundreds of miles. The research was meant to simply learn more about these social calls, but during the study, their recordings began to pick up the pulses from a seismic survey.  “The whales made more calls on days when the testing was happening. It seems they are having to repeat themselves in order to not lose information,” said lead researcher Lucia Di Lorio.  They also called more on survey days when the sounds were not audible than when they were, and tended to rapidly increase calls when the sounds appeared.

Blue whale at surface.    Image: Wikipedia Commons

Blue whale at surface. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Blue whales, the world’s largest animal, number just 5-10,000, are solitary for most of the year, making these summer-time feeding gatherings especially important; di Lorio notes that “We don’t yet know a lot about what these calls mean…They come to eat, but also to check out each other, maybe find a mate.”

The results were especially surprising, since the survey in question was using a much lower-power source than many surveys, and at levels much lower than those typically considered likely to cause problems.  “It’s used [here] because it’s thought to have a lower impact on marine life,” di Lorio told the BBC, “But we should definitely reconsider these things, because clearly it’s not only the sound level that’s important; and one thing might be not to do the test when there are lots of whales around.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Navy Final EIS Says Sonar Training Doesn’t Need Restrictions

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The Navy, as planned, has released its final EIS governing mid-frequency active sonar training along the entire eastern seaboard, as well as a similar EIS for southern California sonar use.  While the documents consider formal Alternatives that would limit sonar training to specific areas—either permanently or seasonally, based on marine mammal breeding, feeding, and migration patterns—the Navy concludes that these restrictions would not make a significant difference in how many whales are affected, so they propose to continue training at will within their entire current Operation Areas (OPAREAS). Read the rest of this entry »

Navy Complains About Varying Sonar Rules

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After routine pre-deployment training exercises in Hawaii, some Navy personnel have complained that the differing operational requirements imposed by federal courts in Hawaii and California are complicating, and at times compromising, their mission. Rear Adm. James P. “Phil” Wisecup, commander of the strike group, said the changing sonar rules “just complicate things” in a warfare area that’s already very complex. “In the end, just give me a standard, and I can meet it,” Wisecup said, “But if the standard changes — and it is changing from one area to another — as different judges interpret the law and make decisions on a very complex issue — then we have to adapt.” Read the rest of this entry »

Workshop Suggests Ways for MPAs to Provide Acoustic Refuge

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Agardy, Aguilar, Canadas, Engel, Frantzis, Hatch, Hoyt, Kashner, LaBrecque, Martin, Notarbartolo di Sciara, Pavan, Servidio, Smith, Want, Weilgart, Wintle, Wright. 2007. A global Scientific Workshop on Spatio-Temporal Management of Noise. Report of the Scientific Workshop. 44 pages. [DOWNLOAD(pdf)]

AEI Lay Summary
In June 2007, a workshop was held in the Canary Islands to consider the potentials for extending the management principles used in Marine Protected Areas to provide some protection from anthropogenic noise. Fundamental to the purpose and effectiveness of MPAs are “spatio-temporal restrictions” (STRs) of specific human activities: for example, excluding fishing, from a specific area (spatial restriction), or sometimes at times of special biological importance, such as spawning (temporal restriction). Few of today’s MPAs are large enough to provide protection from “elevated levels of ensonification:” buffers of tens of kilometers would be necessary for protection from mid-frequency sound, and a hundred or more kilometers from low-frequency sound. Read the rest of this entry »

SoCal Sonar Draft EIS: Navy Sticks to its Approach

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Navy Releases Southern California Sonar Draft EIS, Proposals Fall Short of Court Orders – The Navy has released its long-planned Draft Environmental Impact Statement on offshore training exercises in Southern California, including the use of mid-frequency active sonar. Recent legal challenges to the Navy training, in which a circuit court judge imposed additional restrictions on use and an appeals court upheld the ruling, have been based on both the Navy’s previous lack of comprehensive environmental analysis, and on the standing of the California Coastal Commission to impose its own restrictions beyond those imposed by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service. The DEIS continues to make the case that the Navy’s existing operational procedures, developed in consort with NMFS, provide adequate protection to marine life; California state officials and laywers told the press that they are likely to challenge the final EIS if additional safety measures are not added.  Read the rest of this entry »