Subject: Case Study: EXP--Underwater Sound (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Tue, 21 May 1996 13:30:59 -0400 (EDT)

How can sound affect whales, fish, marine life?
Is this information important?
What is the range of this experiment?
Is this experiment worth the risk?
is there a risk?

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 20 May 96 11:32:00 UTC 0000
Subject: EXP--Underwater Sound

EXP--Underwater Sound

 Associated Press Writer
   SEATTLE (AP) -- Environmentalists and operators of whale-watching
boats say they are concerned that a proposed underwater sound
experiment off the coast of Washington state could harm local
marine mammals.
   Scientists want to send bursts of sound through Haro Strait to
learn more about the "front" where salt and fresh waters meet in
the channel between the San Juan Islands and Canada's Vancouver
   "The only way you can communicate underwater is using sound.
That's what whales have known for millions and millions of years,"
said Henrik Schmidt, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology who requested a marine mammal harassment
permit for the Navy-funded study.
   The National Marine Fisheries Service has solicited public
comments about the 26-day experiment, which is scheduled to begin
June 10.
   The marine mammals that would be affected include killer whales,
also called orcas, harbor seals, and harbor and Dall's porpoises.
   "Probably the orcas won't even notice we are there," Schmidt
   Others aren't so sure.
   The strait "is not a vast ocean ... it's a narrow highway that
the orcas travel through," said Peter Hamilton of the Lifeforce
Foundation, an environmental group in Vancouver, British Columbia.
   While the researchers' permit application suggests animals that
are bothered can just swim away, Hamilton says it will take time
for area marine life to learn that the noise is harmful. His group
wants the researchers to shut off their equipment when they know
whales and other marine mammals are nearby.
   The Northwest Whale-Watcher Operators Association, whose 18
member companies take people out to observe the whales and other
marine life, voted 17-1 to oppose the project -- despite a bylaw
that calls for them to support and encourage research.
   The scientists "just don't know what it's going to do. The
industry just doesn't want to take the chance,"said group
president Roy Sayvetz from the Vashon Island offices of his Island
   Also, Sayvetz said, the experiment is planned for the height of
the tourist season "when there are more whales around than any
other time of year."
   Patrick Miller, a graduate student in biology both at MIT and at
the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution, has a separate
grant from the Office of Naval Research to monitor the experiment's
impact on wildlife.
   He maintains that more noise is made for longer periods by boats
-- including whale-watching boats -- and by fish finders, bottom
sonars and deterrent devices at hatcheries.
   "It (the noise) might not bother them (the killer whales and
other marine mammals) at all," he said. "They seem to be awfully
resilient" about noise from area boat traffic.
   The fisheries service has noted that most of the sounds planned
for the study are at levels so low they do not require
authorization. The researchers "are correctly taking a cautious
approach" because of recent controversy surrounding acoustic
research off the California coast by the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography, the federal agency said.
   The researchers plan to transmit sound -- in short-term clicks --
from several points for about four hours a day. Two underwater
robots will be used to collect data. The frequencies involved in
the Haro Strait study will be much lower than those used by
Scripps, Schmidt said.
   The researchers are consulting with whale study groups and
trying to keep the process as open as possible, he noted -- to the
extent of creating a web page on the Internet
(file:// for those with an
interest in submarine acoustics.
   The researchers are making every effort to reduce the impact of
their experiment, said Miller, who was invited to participate when
he raised concerns about the project.
   In addition, an independent panel of four area scientists will
follow the effort and can call for suspending the experiment if
there is evidence of harm, Miller said.
   The permit application suggests that the study's effects on
marine mammals could include harassment, temporary or permanent
hearing loss, habitat displacement or even death, though it says
any harmful effects will be addressed with an effective monitoring
   Miller said even temporary hearing loss was unlikely.
   The loudest sounds will register about 195 decibels. That's
about the equivalent on land of a 135-decibel jet takeoff, Miller
said, though he noted that is an ongoing sound, not short-term
clicks like the sounds that will be used for the experiment.
   "Animals have been shown to respond very differently to clicks
... they have a very different impact than a long-duration sound,"
he added.
   An outboard motor registers about 170 decibels -- 110 decibels
underwater, he said, contending that only by monitoring the effects
of such sounds can society knowledgeably deal with the impact of
boat and ferry traffic on marine mammals.
   Miller said he hopes his research "will give us some idea what
levels of sound actually matter to the animals" and help protect
   Schmidt said the research is an environmental study "with no
direct military application whatsoever."
   The salt and fresh water fronts the researchers want to study
are similar to those in the atmosphere, but little is known about
how they behave and develop, he said.
   Killer whales pass down the front to feed on salmon drawn by
food that is stirred up there, he said. "The behavior of this
front plays a very important role for that ecosystem."
   In the event of a major oil spill, the front would have a role
"in determining how oil is mixed with water mass," Schmidt said,
noting that 30 tankers a day pass through the strait.
   "That's a very attractive goal," said Howard Garrett at the
Center for Whale Research, which has its headquarters at Friday
Harbor in the San Juans.
   However, he said, he was not sure how the research would help
increase such understanding. He noted that the Coast Guard is
already quite familiar with area tides and currents.
   Porpoises likely will be driven from the area by the noise,
Garr family
groups, is "taking a sort of noninvolvement stance," but will
alert the study participants to any behavioral changes attributed
to their activities, Garrett said.
   "They'll get to play with some very expensive toys and be on a
nice island," he said.