NOAA and BOEM; Ignorance is Bliss. By Jim Lovgren

For about twenty years the Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC] engaged the US Navy in a legal battle over the effects of the Navy’s use of Mid Frequency Sonar in training exercises and its impact on marine mammals and other creatures, with one case even reaching the US Supreme court. While there are many different aspects of NRDC’s legal actions, the results of the litigation have produced an enormous amount of scientific data and research regarding the effects of underwater sound on marine creatures, with an emphasis on Sonar and marine mammals. They forced the Navy to admit that their use of sonar had resulted in the unintentional mass strandings of many different marine Mammals in a dozen different instances around the world, primarily involving Beaked whales, that are classified as being low to mid frequency cetaceans. These mammals communicate, navigate and feed using low to mid frequency sounds. While this series of lawsuits resulted in the recognition of the harm that high powered Sonar can cause to marine creatures, it did not address the issue of the damage that lower sound levels can cause. This also coincided with a growing recognition that the amount of human caused noise in the natural marine environment was reaching a dangerous level, and was having impacts on the creatures that reside there, which may be worse that many of the more visible signs of pollution.

The efforts of NRDC regarding the damaging effects of Naval sonar has saved the lives of many marine creatures by forcing the Navy to comply with the many US laws that protect the environment. They have become one of the worlds leading experts on the effect of noise on marine mammals, yet
curiously they remain silent on the issue of the recent strandings of Whales along the US east coast, as coincidently research vessels using low frequency sonar have inundated the area for geological mapping of the seafloor and substrates for industrial wind power turbines. A group that was so concerned about saving the Whales from underwater noise, has conveniently forgotten their concern because that noise is created by vessels employed by wind companies. Those companies and the US government have worked in unison to deny any link at all between the recent strandings and the work being done for offshore wind development. High level US officials have categorically denied that there is any evidence of the noise being produced having a detrimental effect on marine mammals despite decades of work in regard to the harm being caused by human produced noise in the marine environment. Existing science suggests the link is there.

In a paper by NRDC’s Joel Reynolds, titled “Submarine’s, Sonar, and the death of Whales”, published by William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Revue [vol. 32:759] in 2008, Reynolds writes; “There is no longer a serious scientific debate about the connection between sound and marine
mammal mortality. A range of experts, from the international Whaling Commission’s {IWC} Scientific committee [2004 report] to the U.S. Navy’s own commissioned scientists, have agreed that the evidence linking mass strandings to mid-frequency sonar is “convincing” and “overwhelming”. Consultants retained by the Navy concluded that the evidence of sonar causation is in our opinion, completely convincing and that therefore there is a serious issue of how best to avoid/minimize future beaching events. Potentially related strandings have occurred repeatedly around the world, with stranded animals found with bleeding around the brain, emboli in the lungs, and lesions in the liver and kidneys, symptoms resembling a severe case of decompression sickness, or the “bends”. Because these injuries occurred in the water, before the animals stranded, scientists are concerned that Whales turning up on shore may represent only the tip of the iceberg, with substantially larger numbers dying off-shore. Other sources of noise, such as the airguns used in seismic surveys, may have similar effects.”

The paper also has this statement; “Though a prominent focus of public concern and reporting in the media, these stranding events represent only one manifestation of injury related to exposure to intense noise. Indeed, it is the cumulative impact that these stressors have on the behavior of marine mammals, particularly in already depleted populations, that may pose the greatest threat; what has been called a “death of a thousand cuts”. Because marine mammals depend on sound to navigate, find food, locate mates, avoid predators, and communicate with each other, flooding their habitat with high intensity, anthropogenic noise poses a substantial risk of interference with these and other activities”. Footnoting this point; NRDC’s Michael Jasny, quoted Dr. Sylvia Earle’s “death of a thousand cuts “, and stated that “preliminary attempts at modeling the energetics of marine mammals [the amount of energy an animal has to spend to compensate for an intrusion] suggest that even small alterations in behavior could have significant consequences for reproduction or survival if repeated over time”.

Further in the document are these statements; “Also in November 2005, the parties to the Convention on Migratory Species [CMS] passed a resolution naming marine noise among six human threats to cetacean populations. The resolution calls on the CMS’s Scientific Council to assess whether marine noise is adequately addressed in the convention’s threat abatement activities.”

“The UN General Assembly established an “Ad Hoc Open-Ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction” [i.e. on the high seas] In February 2006 that working group convened its first
meeting, where it recognized ocean noise as a “growing human pressure” that requires urgent action through international cooperation and coordination.”

Lastly, starting off the recommendations section of the paper is this; “The accumulating scientific evidence of noise-induced harm, including mass strandings of marine mammals around the world, is a wake up call to a significant environmental problem. While its complexity precludes a simple
or an immediate solution, some progress has already been made, both domestically and globally. But much more is clearly needed now, at a point where meaningful and effective solutions can have an impact BEFORE the problem proliferates out of control, it’s causes intractable and it’s impacts

This last sentence is critical, because we are already near the point where long term damage from the multiple noise sources involved in the production of offshore wind energy is intractable, and its impacts to marine mammal populations irreversible. Extinction is forever.

Many marine mammal species migrate annually along the North American coast and they have had to adapt during their lifetimes to a growing amount of human created noise, some of it deadly. It has created a high stress life for them with a confusing array of sounds including low frequency noise from distant sonar and seismic testing, which can trigger fight or flight responses. Repeated stress responses can be detrimental physiologically to animals and could lead to premature death. The average life span of every species of Whales along the US coast has dropped dramatically in the last few decades, coinciding with the rise in human produced noise in the marine environment. Have Whale species in the North Atlantic reached the tipping point in how much human produced noise they can withstand and still survive, or have they passed the point of no return with the recent introduction of almost relentless noise from low frequency sonar research vessels along the coast?

NOAA and BOEM are closing their eyes to science and scientific protocol in regard to the recent Whale strandings. They ignore a growing mountain of evidence indicating that many species of whales are more sensitive to sound then previously thought, with research showing tagged Cuvier’s beaked
Whales responding to only 89 dB re 1 u Pa. A paper published by Frontiers in Marine Science, entitled; “Impacts of Navy Sonar on Whales and Dolphins: Now beyond a Smoking Gun? By E.C.M. Parsons in 2017 cites numerous recent studies showing Whales sensitivity to sound is greater than believed, and he reasons then that the US harassment levels of sound are far higher than they should be, with TTS and PTS being reached at lower levels then acknowledged. Almost all of the research that’s been done has admitted to not having enough science to be certain of any effects of under water noise but they all urge the use of the Precautionary Principle in regard to its possible effects. This important paragraph highlights that:

“The importance of not delaying conservation action when a concern exists, but scientific data and analysis have not incontrovertibly established the threat exists, i.e. “the precautionary principle”, has been enshrined in a number of international laws [Hey,1991] including the 1992 Convention on
biological Diversity [Principle 15 of the so-called “Rio Summit”]. Because of this level of uncertainty and difficulty in establishing beyond a reasonable doubt trends and threats in cetacean populations, it has been argued that in order to effectively conserve and manage populations one must be precautionary, as otherwise catastrophic declines in cetacean populations could occur before science catches up with the problem”.

We only have one last chance to save the North Atlantic Right Whale from extinction, scientific protocol calls for us to make the most of it. Endangered marine mammals are facing a survival crisis that is complicated by the increase in human made noise, which may even have more population level effects then ship strikes and fishing gear encounters. The sheer enormity of Biden’s offshore wind projects dwarfs in size and scope any previous usages of the marine environment throughout history, its effects are bound to be enormously destructive to the entire marine ecosystem of the east coast. No one should be able to ignore science just because it doesn’t suit their purposes.

4 Responses to NOAA and BOEM; Ignorance is Bliss. By Jim Lovgren

  1. Joel Hovanesian says:

    And how much has the NRDC received in contributions from these wind schills? They’re hypocrisy knows no bounds.
    This situation is sickening. From the foreign companies who don’t care about destroying our environment, to the American companies and unions who are complicit. Nice job Jim. People need to know.

  2. johndroz says:

    TY Jim for your excellent assessment. As a physicist I appreciate your focus on the Science. FYI, I have a webpage exclusively about offshore wind, and it lists dozens of studies about the adverse consequences of un-natural noise, etc on ocean fish, mammals, etc. See “”.

  3. Nadia Nichols says:

    Thank you for this post. We must keep fighting to prevent the extinction of these incredible mammals. Noise pollution in our oceans spells doom for our whales. Must we destroy our planet under the guise of saving it? Too ironic, that we nearly wiped whales out killing them for their oil to light up our cities. The discovery of fossil fuels saved them from extinction. And now, in order to destroy fossil fuels, we destroy the whales yet again.

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