Orca Network letter to Secretary of the Navy Hansford Johnson

June 12, 2003

Hon. Hansford T. Johnson
Acting Secretary of the Navy
1000 Navy Pentagon
Washington, DC 20350-1000

Dear Secretary Johnson:

I am writing in reference to the May 5, 2003 incident in which the USS Shoup operated mid-frequency sonar at volumes that visibly distressed and possibly killed cetaceans in Haro Strait. At least six porpoises washed up dead around the position of the Shoup within days following the sonar exercises. Necropsy examinations may soon reveal the cause of those deaths. At least one minke whale was seen fleeing from the Shoup at extremely high speeds. Video and audio tapes clearly show attempts by the 22 members of J pod of the Southern Resident orca community, ranging in age from one month to over 90 years, to avoid the life-threatening noise. Their movements were extremely agitated as they moved north, then south, then became separated while trying to lift their heads out of the water. They could not escape however, as they were held against the 20 mile long coastline along the west side of San Juan Island, just a few miles from the Shoup's location in mid Haro Strait. A naturalist on board one of the whale watch vessels also reported feeling pain, nausea and dizziness during the sonar exercises, and continued to suffer from constant ringing in her ears two weeks after the incident.

The average person on the street in western Washington is aware that whales are often found along the west side of San Juan Island. Most people know that in the months of April, May and June orcas are consistently found in this area year after year. The Center for Whale Research, The Whale Museum, Orca Network and any whale watch operator could have provided even more precise information on the movements of J pod in these waters on a daily basis in the days and weeks leading up to 5 May. Whale watch boats were in fact near the whales in clear visible range while the Shoup was testing sonar on 5 May.

In the weeks leading up to the 5 May event acoustic recordings were made of other sonar incidents coincident with rare sightings of porpoises fleeing close to the surface. On 21 March, 2002, while extremely loud sonar was recorded from at least two hydrophone stations on the west side of San Juan Island, a group of 30-40 whales, determined to be Offshore orcas, swam at high speed deep into Port Townsend harbor, a sight seldom if ever before witnessed. The pod was observed in the harbor until the Navy boats approached Admiralty Inlet, at which time the pod took off at a high rate of speed out the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Orca Network joins with many other governmental, environmental and whale advocacy groups and individuals in questioning the value of testing sonar in a well-known vital habitat for several cetacean species. Unless there is some kind of real underwater enemy threat, we can only wonder at the lack of judgment that could have led to such harmful and potentially lethal disruptions of marine life.

In March of 2000 Navy sonar exercises in the Bahamas killed seven and probably at least 16 rare, deep diving beaked whales. That incident created a firestorm of negative international publicity for the Navy. This and other incidents of naval sonar testing coincident with cetacean deaths in Greece and the Canary Islands have created an image of Navy sonar carelessly killing whales. In Press Release # 14-00, 21 April 2000, the Public Affairs Office of the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet stated: "The U.S. Navy takes its role as a steward of the seas very seriously. Navy peacetime operations and training events are designed to fully comply with U.S. environmental laws and regulations."

In June, 2000 the Navy announced it was assisting in determining the cause of the stranding of whales. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) said it was "the leading organization, worldwide, in funding research into the effects of sound on marine mammals. That research is conducted to ensure that essential naval operations and systems - such as sonar - are operated with minimal impacts upon marine mammals. This year the Navy increased its research budget on this topic by over 50 percent (to over 3 million dollars, annually).

"If, either as a result of the investigation into the Bahamas stranding or future research, it is determined that naval sonars can produce barotrauma in beaked whales or any other marine life, the Navy will reassess its use of sonars in the course of peacetime training and implement measures to minimize the risk to beaked whales."

In December, 2001, a joint study by the Navy and U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service admitted that Navy sonar likely caused 16 whales to beach themselves in the Bahamas. In the report, the Navy said it will work to decrease the chance of cusing whales to beach themselves as long as national security is not compromised.

Our question to you sir, is: Why did your office not issue directives, as publicly promised, to take precautions to avoid such incidents? Further, we are very interested to know what kind of sonar exercises the Navy is conducting at sea, beyond the range of non-military acoustic listening devices or visual observers? It is germane to question whether there is a correlation between sonar activity and the increased mortality rates in the Southern Residents in the past eight years. Legitimate questions have also been raised about whether Navy sonars were involved in the unprecedented separation of two orca calves from their families in 2001.

The Southern Resident orca community is currently under Federal protection by designation as "Depleted" under the MMPA. The State of Washington is in the process of declaring the Southern Residents an endangered population. Canada has declared the Southern Residents endangered under the Species At Risk Act.

It is difficult to believe that the Navy could be unaware of the presence of this group of orcas directly in the path of the Shoup. It is also difficult to comprehend how the Navy could be uninformed that the Southern Residents are widely recognized as highly endangered.

Once again the Navy is seen as oblivious to the need to protect marine life, especially the much-loved resident orca populations consistently found in the area of the sonar exercises. We respectfully request an explanation for this latest episode and some credible assurance that such events will not occur again.


Howard Garrett
Board President
Orca Network

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