Subject: Case Study: Noise Tests off San Juan islands (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Sun, 14 Apr 1996 14:44:07 -0400 (EDT)

There seem to be two sides to this issue.  
How would you as students or 
interested parties determine which opinion is most vaild.  On what would 
you base your decision--data or notions?  

How would you proceed?
Try contacting the parties involved via email?  Research literature?

Let us know what you find out and which decision you would make.

Mike Williamson 
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 14 Apr 1996 04:46:48 +1000
To: Multiple recipients of list MARMAM <MARMAM@UVVM.BITNET>
Subject: Noise Tests off San Juan islands

Date: Fri, 12 Apr 1996
Orca defenders criticize plans for noise tests off San Juans

by Danny Westneat
(Seatttle Times staff reporter)

       A team of scientists plans to broadcast loud, high-pitched sounds
from underwater speakers this summer in the San Juan Islands, in part to
test whether noise harms or disorients killer whales and other sea mammals.

       The scientists say the pulses of noise, the loudest of which would
have the same sound intensity as a jet taking off, likely would not
seriously hurt the roughly 100 killer whales, or orcas, that inhabit north
Puget Sound waters in June or July.

       But critics contend the scientists actually have no idea whether the
noise will cause temporary or permanent hearing loss in whales, and that
the scientists' own proposal concedes the monthlong study may alter
behavior patterns of whales swimming up to 4 miles away.

       The scientists proposing the study are from Woods Hole (Mass.)
Oceanographic Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
They plan the sound pulses primarily to study the chemical and physical
properties of a marine "front," where salt water and fresh water meet and
first begin to mix.

       Patrick Miller, a researcher from Woods Hole, says that most of the
noise won't be any louder than that emitted by a fish-finding sonar device.
The sound probably can't damage a whale's hearing even temporarily unless
the whale "nudges directly up against the sound source, which is virtually
impossible," he said.

       In total, the experiments should be less disruptive - and maybe even
less noisy - than the 50 or more whale-watching boats that follow the whale
pods every day, the researchers say.

       But broadcasting sounds into prime orca habitat to see if the whales
are bothered is "a bit like pouring poison into a river to see if it's
toxic to fish," said Paul Spong, a scientist at OrcaLab, a research group
that studies killer whales at Vancouver Island.

       The research, sponsored by the U.S. Navy, will also use two
6-foot-long underwater robots to analyze water characteristics.

       The testing area is in Haro Strait, a key waterway for orcas as well
as for porpoises, seals and other mammals, which rely on hearing to feed
and navigate.

       "This is like a main highway for the orcas," said Peter Hamilton of
Lifeforce, a Vancouver, B.C., ecology group. "Nobody knows how harmful
these sounds may be to them. They say the animals can just swim away, but
this place is vital to where they travel and live."

       Though it is extremely unlikely the noises will severely injure or
kill a marine mammal, the research could force some mammals, particularly
whales, temporarily away from their preferred habitat, according to a
review by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

       The loudest underwater pulsed "ping" will be about 195 decibels,
equivalent to about 135 decibels on land, or the approximate sound
intensity of a nearby jet engine as heard by the human ear. An outboard
motor issues a sound intensity of about 170 decibels underwater, Miller

       The sounds will be broadcast at high frequencies, in some cases out
of the range of human hearing but certainly detectable by many marine
mammals, the scientists say.

       The fisheries agency has announced it intends to grant the
researchers a permit to do the experiments because the area in question is
only a small fraction of orca habitat in Puget Sound. Further, the
researchers have agreed to let an independent panel of four Northwest
scientists monitor the work and shut it down if it appears the noise is
directly harming sea life.

       Sound to a marine mammal is like vision to humans, said Dan Costa, a
professor of biology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, but the
scientific community doesn't understand much more than that about it.

       "If somebody's shining a spotlight, is it going to be a problem for
you to see? It depends on how bright it is and whether it's shining in your
face, and the same is probably true for a whale confronted by a loud
sound," he said.

       A whale or porpoise traveling close enough to a loud, directed sound
may experience sensations ranging from pain to annoyance to nothing at all,
Costa said. If it hears the sound and doesn't like it, the mammal typically
will respond by swimming somewhere else, said Costa, who has been studying
the effect of low-frequency noise blasts on sea mammals in California.

       "But the answer is, we don't really know what it does to them," he
said. "We do know there is so much more noise in the ocean from boats than
there is from researchers that if these animals are really that sensitive,
then we have an incredible problem on our hands."

       A plan announced two years ago to study ocean temperatures by
broadcasting sound pulses across the Pacific Ocean from California caused a
storm of controversy. Since then, oceanographers who routinely use sound
waves to measure things in the water have faced scrutiny over whether their
work harassed marine mammals.

       After delaying the project for more than a year and finally agreeing
to move the sound emitter away from a marine sanctuary off San Francisco,
scientists in the California study began in December to broadcast
low-frequency sounds that can be detected as far away as Alaska. Mammals
don't appear to be bothered and certainly have not fled the area, but it's
too soon to tell whether the noise is having any subtle effects on swimming
patterns or other behaviors, Costa said.

       Miller, one of the scientists proposing the local study, said he
grew up, in part, on San Juan Island and wants to do the noise experiments
to help protect the region's marine life, not hurt it. Only by testing
whether moderate-to-loud underwater sound harms marine mammals can society
begin to discuss whether boats, ferries or other noise-makers should be
restricted from crucial areas, he said.

       Other scientists agree.

       "All those little boats tooling around with their outboard motors
are far more disruptive to these animals than our sound emitters," said Bob
Spindel, head of the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory
and part of the California project team. "And they don't even need a

       How to comment The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed
granting scientists a permit to broadcast underwater sounds that may affect
orcas and other marine mammals in the San Juan Islands. To comment, write
       Chief, Marine Mammal Division,
       Office of Protected Resources,
       National Marine Fisheries Service,
       1315 East-West Highway,
        Silver Spring, Md. 20910-3225.

Comment period ends April 29.