Info: right whale and U.S. Navy (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Mon, 19 Mar 1996 11:07:39

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From: Michael Williamson <>
Subject: Info: right whale and U.S. Navy (fwd)
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Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 08:55:38 -0500
To: Multiple recipients of list MARMAM <MARMAM@UVVM.BITNET>
Subject: right whale and U.S. Navy
Right whale deaths and the United States Navy
Dave Wiley (International Wildlife Coalition) and Sharon Young (Humane
Society of the United States)
Recently, there has been some discussion on MARMAM about the death of 5
and probably 6 northern right whales in the waters off north Florida and
Georgia.  What follows is some of what we currently know (or think we
know) about the situation.  Dr. Joseph Geraci is reviewing the
mortalities, so this information may change.  Some of this information
was obtained from the National Marine Fisheries Service as part of a
request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  The Navy has not
yet responded to our FOIA request.
At least 5 and probably 6 right whales died between early January and
late February of this year. These deaths have occurred just outside the
boundaries of the designated right whale critical habitat and calving
ground.  Three of them were calves (one likely to have been a neonatal
mortality) and two of them sexually mature adults (one male and one
female). Little information is available on the sixth animal.  The
clustered aspect of the mortalities would suggest the cause to be viral,
toxicological or anthropogenic in nature.  The deaths coincide in time
and space with Naval maneuvers that involve gunnery practice and bombs.
We have not found any information that would support a viral or
toxicological origin, although such investigations likely continue.
Several of the mortalities have unusual characteristics associated with
them, although interpretation of these data are always difficult.
Prior to 1996, war games occurred primarily around the Navys base in
Cuba.  This year, games were moved to the Navy base in Mayport, Florida.
People who have been involved in such simulation exercises have told us
that they are designed to push participants to their limits (i.e. lots
of stress, no sleep etc.).  Under such conditions, it is doubtful that
the presence of right whales would be a priority.  In several instances
this year, the right whale early warning system has alerted Naval ships
to the presence of nearby right whales that the ships own lookouts had
not detected.
We also note that Virginia, another  hot spot  for large whale
mortalities, is also the home of substantial Naval activity.  During our
investigations of those deaths (see Wiley et al. 1995. Stranding and
mortality of  humpback whales, Megaptera novaeanglia, in the
mid-Atlantic and southeast regions of the United States. Fishery
Bulletin 93:196-205), we received several unsigned letters urging us to
look into underwater detonations by the Navy as a potential source of
those mortalities.  While those accusations were impossible to
corroborate, we did observe a shore based naval installation engaged in
gunnery practice using waters where a few days before we had seen
humpback and fin whales.  While, in that case, the Navy agreed to
institute marine mammal watches prior to gunnery exercises, it would
appear that the safety of whales, and complying with the requirements of
the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act
(MMPA) is not necessarily a Navy priority.
What follows is a summary of each mortality event, as well as a letter
to the Secretary of the Navy requesting the Navy to:
      1 - suspend maneuvers in right whale habitat off the coasts of
Florida and Georgia until the cause of the deaths is determined or all
right whales leave the area,
      2 -  re-initiate a formal consultation with the National Marine
Fisheries Service (NMFS), as is mandated under section 7 of the ESA.
      3 -  examine its activities as they pertain to the MMPA, which
forbids the harassment, injury or killing of marine mammals.
Mortality Events
On January 2 a small calf was found stranded.  It appeared to be a
newborn and the cause of death could not be determined. This was the
first confirmed death.
On January 30 an adult male was found floating 10 miles off Georgia,
determined to be a probable ship strike.  An examination of the ears
found severe trauma, possibly damage from concussion.  Whether this
condition predated the ship strike (i.e. an injured and deafened animal
hit by ship) or was a result of the strike could not be determined.  The
severe nature of the injuries to the animal by the ship indicated that
it was hit either at a rapid speed or head on. If struck by a naval
vessel, this is a violation of procedures under the section 7 prudent
measures that were to be taken by the Navy. The Navy admits to
conducting gunnery exercises a few miles from this carcass on January 17
and 27th. This was the second confirmed death.
On February 7 another carcass was found.  The Navy declined to assist in
efforts to tow the animal to shore for necropsy.  No other vessel could
be found to help retrieve this large female and her cause of death
remains unknown, as the carcass disappeared (somewhat unusual, as they
tend to float for long periods). The Navy admits conducting gunnery
exercises on February 6th in the general area.  This was the third
confirmed death.
On February 9 the Navy reported another dead whale (originally recorded
on February 5 but unreported until the 9th).  This was approximately 27
miles to the northeast of the February 7 carcass.  This carcass
disappeared before it could be retrieved.  Although Navy has claimed
that this is the same carcass as the February 7 carcass, the location of
the carcass was not in the normal drift patterns of the current in the
area, or from the drift pattern observed for any other carcasses.  It is
not clear whether this represented a separate death, although the
circumstance might suggest that it is a different animal.
On February 19th a survey team spotted a dead right whale calf floating
offshore of Kings Bay Submarine Base, Georgia.  The Navy once again
declined to assist in recovering the carcass, but the Georgia DNR  staff
recovered the calfs body and towed it to shore.  The body was found
within the boundary of the area the Navy admits to using for gunnery
exercises.  Preliminary autopsy indicated that the calf was healthy and
had been feeding recently.  Its lungs were filled with fluid (with no
sign of infectious processes) and some organ hemorrhaging was observed.
A detailed examination of the ears from this animal revealed that one of
the ears showed signs of brain concussion, potentially due to a blow to
the head or extreme stress.  The lack of similar damage in the other ear
suggested that blast trauma was not involved, as this would likely
affect both ears.  This was the fourth confirmed death.
On February 22nd. another dead calf was spotted near Cumberland Island
Georgia, not far from the previous calfs body. A chartered fishing boat
assisted in towing it to shore. Necropsy revealed that it, too had fluid
filled lungs and a unilateral hemorrhage behind the left eye suggesting
effects from external trauma.  A pathologist noted  changes in the lungs
are non-specific, generally associated with acute cardiovascular
collapse (i.e. shock).  He also noted that the damage behind the eye  is
unusual and suggests a unilateral traumatic event.  With the reported
absence of external ocular trauma, these changes are not inconsistent
with a concussion event.   It was observed to be otherwise healthy (e.g.
good fat layer).  Loud gunnery sounds were recorded on the 22nd. A more
in depth examination of the ears did not confirm the earlier suspicions
of a concussion event.  However, only a single ear was examined and a
definite assessment would require the examination of both ears.  This
was the fifth confirmed death.
So there you have it.  As usual, the exact cause of the deaths remains
unknown.  Evidence both supports and questions the unusual nature of the
mortalities.  In addition, we should not expect all mortalities to be
unusual, as 1-2 deaths per year, particularly among calves, occurred
prior to the new Naval operations.
What do we know?  We have the clustered deaths of a highly endangered
species.  Evidence supporting a viral or toxicological cause appear to
be lacking, leaving anthropogenic interaction the most likely factor in
the mortalities.  We have a new  human activity (Naval operations) that
coincides in space and time with the mortalities, and includes
activities that could logically be expected to jeopardize animals
through explosive trauma, ship strike or stress.
We also know that the level of this activity can be expected to
increase. Starting immediately NATO will begin international maneuvers
in these same waters.  This means that an additional 14-18 warships from
6 countries (all of which will be keeping a sharp eye out for right
whales) will be operating in waters adjacent to the calving/wintering
grounds designated as critical habitat.  In addition, they will
frequently cross the designated critical habitat as they travel to and
from the Naval base in Mayport.  While much is being made of the
potential for death by explosive trauma, the most likely scenario would
involve a ship strike by a Naval vessel transiting the area.
The key question becomes; how much uncertainty can be tolerated in
making decisions about the protection of an endangered species?  The
Navy should be (and is) extremely concerned that they not be held
responsible for the mortalities and forced to change their activities,
if, in fact, they are not the cause (if we were using statistics we
would consider this a Type 1 error).  We also would not want to make
such an error.  However, we should be even more concerned about deciding
that the Navy is not responsible if, in fact, they are, because for
right whales the result of that error is huge.
The northern right whale is the worlds most endangered species of large
whale.  The North Atlantic population, with only about 300 animals
remaining, may be the only population with a chance of avoiding
extinction.  These animals are protected under the ESA and the MMPA, and
are one of the most visible symbols of conservation in the United
States.  The six dead whales represent two percent of the population,
and the deaths occurred in only a two month period.  Those of us working
in the area of fisheries interactions would be appalled at such numbers,
if they occurred as a result of commercial activity.  It would seem that
the entire marine mammal community should be supporting the National
Marine Fisheries Service in its attempts to force the Navy to curtail
its operations, yet there seems to have been very little concern.
Without a great deal of public and scientific involvement, we can expect
little success in dealing with the United States Navy.  In addition,
unless the activities can be stopped, the closing of the US Naval base
in Cuba ensures that they will become an annual event.
On a separate posting, we have placed a sample letter to the Secretary
of the Navy requesting action.  It, or the information above, can be
used as the basis for your own letters to the Navy, congressional
representatives, or the media.
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