More info on research in Puget Sound. ---------- Forwarded message ---------- Date: Tue, 21 May 1996 10:00:54 EST From: Dagmar_Fertl@smtp.mms.gov To: Multiple recipients of list MARMAM <MARMAM@UVVM.BITNET> Subject: news clip - underwater sounds By PEGGY ANDERSEN 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 Island. "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 said. 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 Institute. 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://sardine.whoi.edu/pub/html/haro.html) 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 plan. 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 them. 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, Garrett said, though killer whales who avoid the area during the study would have no difficulty finding food nearby. The center, which monitors area killer-whale "pods" or 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.