As you read this in January, very loud and low sounds may be bellowing directly in the middle of the gray whales' ancestral migration path to provoke their reactions. This is Phase II of the scientific research program to try to understand the impact of human noise on the great whales.
Previous Whales Alive! articles have kept our readers informed about the Low Frequency Sound Scientific Research Program using the U.S. Navy's Low Frequency Active Sonar. You've read CSI's concerns as well. Phase I was held off the Southern California coast during October. As you read this Phase II of the Low Frequency Sound Scientific Research Program should be roaring off Pt. Boucheron, near San Luis Obispo, California. Scheduled from 5-30 January 1998 and subject to the vagaries of El Niņo, the test is focusing on gray whales to try to answer several vital questions about the effects of man made sounds on whales. The Navy is again being particularly cooperative and generous with this test. Although reactions to LFA sounds are a stated objective, the LFA will probably never be used operationally within the gray whales' coastal habitat.
Gray whales migrate south day and night, passing by at about 4.5 whales per hour. During Phase II about half will be expected to appear in a well defined corridor about one nautical mile offshore. The rest will pass inshore. Everyone knows that this species has made a remarkable comeback from two disastrous whaling periods, has been taken off Endangered status, and today swims a gauntlet of human activities over one of the longest migration paths of any mammal. All along that path there are pressures from oil field development, noise, pollution, boat traffic, an aggressive effort to industrialize their breeding lagoons by Mitsubishi, and planned killing by the Makah Nation. Just how bad can the deleterious effect of humans on gray whales get?
Phase II of the Low Frequency Sound Scientific Research Program is designed to have an impact on the whales, but not enough to do harm or slow their migration. It hopes to answer several questions. Do gray whales respond to received levels of sound (raw loudness), sound gradients (changes in intensity), or distance from a source (perception of location)? Will these facts better equip us to understand what characteristics of human noise matter to them? Will that help us manage our noise to prevent doing harm to this species and others?
The test will begin with a source moored in the middle of the migration path. Another segment will use a stationary or moving source offshore of the path. Source levels will start relatively low but increase to 215dB "if necessary", according to the Permit Application, if the whales don't seem to respond. Some whales will have suction cup tags attached to record dive profiles so that levels received while below the surface can be estimated. Observers on cliff tops will note track changes and behaviors of all the passing whales, unaware of whether the sounds are on or off. 85 whales may be subjected to the sounds per day.
CSI has many concerns with this research program. Preliminary results from Phase I suggested that adequate management conclusions or decisions can't be made about the effects of man-made sound if the whales' behavioral responses to the experimental sounds are too subtle to expose what we are doing to them. We all assume that man-made sounds are impacting cetaceans, and that this research has the best tools to study that impact. However, if the reactions to the controlled sounds are too subtle does it follow that our assumptions about impacts are excessive, or that the experimental protocols are unable to document the problems? Simply put, will these experiments show us enough, if anything? Can the data quantify the "stubbornness" factor that the whales may just tolerate human noise even if it causes pain or damage? Here we must defer to the scientists running the program. They have a lot on the line, the questions are vital, and we must give them the time to figure it out. There is a lot more on the line than a few scientific reputations or publications. CSI is also concerned about the compressed and vulnerable schedule for the research. Internal and political pressure to keep the program moving ahead has left some observers with a strong impression that not enough effort has been made to look behind. CSI still has serious and unresolved concerns about the mitigation procedures. What will the maximum source level of 215dB do to undetected marine life too close for comfort? Will the mitigation procedures be adequate to prevent "unnecessary" damage? Can people noting whales perhaps six miles away discern the onset of behavioral changes signaling the whales' reactions to the noise, and any "deleterious" impacts as well? Mitigation procedures state that the noise be stopped if whales reverse direction or display adverse reactions. One breach should stop the whole show, but will it? With the image of a heavy metal concert in mind, will any whales just plow through levels of sound that may be well beyond the theoretical annoyance level? Will it cause them harm or disorient them in dangerous coastal surf? Suppose the source is increased to get a response from an approaching group just as a stubborn whale is squeezed against the surf zone trying to slip by? If there has been actual physiological damage to any individual how will we know about it? If a deaf whale dies in San Ignacio Lagoon will anyone make the connection? If the sound field forces any of the whales an unusual distance offshore will they be subjected to potential predation from orcas or some significant alteration to their migration? CSI will be happy to be proven wrong if our concerns are excessive. We can afford to be wrong; the whales can't afford to have our concerns proven correct.
CSI gives qualified support to this aspect of the LFA/LFS, admittedly as an act of faith in the people involved. We must know enough about the impacts of human sounds in the oceans, but not at the price of even one gray whale whose migration or life is altered as a result. If the results are indefinite or inadequate for management purposes, or if the mitigation were not realistic or adhered to, CSI will find even less reason to support Phase III scheduled for a 30 day period as allowed by El Niņo, between February and mid April in Hawaii.
If you think that trying to tweak the migration behavior of gray whales without making them jump is somewhat questionable, what about deliberately impacting the breeding of endangered humpbacks in Hawaii? Phase III will specifically target whales that have other things on their minds, attempting to modify their behaviors, measure the results, and correlate that data to broader questions, without significantly impacting the whales' future population. Decide for yourself; this is the way the Research Permit Application amendment defines "unnecessary disturbance": "If any unexpected responses, such as major modification of whale behavior in the area, especially among mother-calf pairs, are observed, or if any reaction is noted that raises the possibility of any deleterious effect on the whale subjects, the playback experiment will be terminated..." This mitigation definition is too vague in comparison with the precise protocols for the rest of the research; we don't feel comfortable that it is enough. Sperm whales will also be targeted, requiring more invasive tagging. CSI will continue to be involved, but given the pace and power of the LFA/LFS project our concerns and complaints are a comparative whisper.
Refer to the next article on the LFA: The LFS Phase III Test in Hawaii, in Vol. VII No. 2, April 1998
Previous articles on the LFA:
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