Session Topic

April 11- Navy sonar and its impacts on whales and their kin

Click here to read the themes raised by the panel discussion on April 11


Dr. Peter Tyack- Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Rear Admiral Richard F. Pittenger, U.S.N. (Retired) and retired

Vice President for Marine Operations, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Dr. Naomi Rose, Marine Mammal Scientist, Humane Society for the United States

Joel Reynolds, Esq., Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council

Background lecture: Conflicting governmental mandates and cost/benefit analysis; more on technology and its role in marine resource management

The US Navy uses mid-frequency sonar to detect submarines and other potential threats in the ocean. Low-frequency sounds travel farther in water, and the Navy has proposed a new generation sonar array that would use very loud low frequency sounds to detect threats further from shore. Both anecdotal and forensic evidence suggests that these types of sonar can kill whales and dolphins. Though the mechanism is not clearly understood, scientists now believe that when these animals are exposed to the sonar nitrogen that is normally dissolved in their blood comes out of solution to form gas bubbles in veins and arteries. This condition, often called the bends or decompression sickness, occurs in human scuba divers when they surface too quickly. Whale advocates say that the condition is not only fatal, but also very painful. Navy officials have recently admitted that sonar may be a problem for whales and have begun tests to better determine its impacts, but they are reluctant to abandon plans for the new sonar arrays, citing national security concerns. Whale advocates, scientists, and supporters of the Navy’s position will discuss this difficult issue.


U.S. Marine Mammal Commission's Sound Program website ( with links to lots of useful papers and documents, including Advisory Committee on Acoustic Impacts on Marine Mammals Report to the Marine Mammal Commission released in February 2006 ( Read at least the "Process Summary," pages 1-3 about the lack of consensus on the committee and the resulting resulting set of "non-consensus statements" produced by caucuses among the committee members.

"Panel quits in row over sonar damage" in Nature by Rex Dalton, January 24, 2006, offers a brief-but-meaty account of the breakdown of the Marine Mammal Commission's Advisory Committee on Acoustic Impacts on Marine Mammals. Seaflow, an organization devoted to opposing low frequency active sonar, has posted the full text of the article on their website here: If you have a subscription to Nature, you can access the article here:

US Navy's Whales and Sonar website includes summaries of the Navy's position on the issue and their research agenda.

Natural Resources Defense Council's Webpage on Whales and Sonar ( includes statements about NRDC's position and links to reports, including Jasny, Michael, Reynolds, J., Horowitz, C., Wetzler, A.Sounding the Depths II: The Rising Toll of Sonar, Shipping and Industrial Ocean Noise on Marine Life. Natural Resources Defense Council, 2005. Read at least the “Executive Summary,” p. iv-vii.

US Navy's Official Website for the Undersea Warfare Training Range has lots of information about a sonar array that the Navy plans to build in the Atlantic of the US east coast. The project overview and fact sheet sections are particularly useful for understanding the proposed project and the Environmental Impact Statement process.

Humane Society of the United States webpage on Noise Pollution and Acoustic Harassment offers a brief outline of HSUS's position on sonar and links to press releases and updates.


"Making Sense of Ocean Noise" short article on Peter Tyack's Congressional Testimony regarding the Marine Mammal Protection Act from Woods Hole Currents, Winter 2003. If you want to delve deeper, a link in the lower left takes you to the full text of his testimony.


Teacher resources:

“Dolphin Demeanor: Exploring Dolphin Behaviors in the Science Classroom.” (Note: Consider extending this activity to examine potential effects of sonar.) New York Times Daily Lesson Plan, July 6, 1999 by Alison Zimbalist, The New York Times Learning Network searchpv=learning_lessons


Themes from the April 11th session on Navy Sonar and its effects on marine mammals

At each session, we note themes arising in the panel discussion in four categories: problem definition, goals (individual, organizational and for the process itself), sources of conflict, and potential solutions. The list is meant to aid in further discussion on the topic and is not meant to be exhaustive or definitive. The themes are recorded by a volunteer from the enrolled students and auditors. Themes noted with an asterisk (*) were added to the list by Saving Seas instructor Tora Johnson drawing upon her notes on the discussion.

The Problem
Effects of sonar on marine mammals
Sound travels 5x faster in the water than in air
Many testing sites are near marine mammal sanctuaries and rich ecosystems
Stakeholders disagree on how bad the problem is
* Navy needs to have on-going training on sonar operations in flexible locations
* Main problem for whales may be displacement, disruption, and stress, rather than death
* Sonar noise is only one of many ocean noise issues impacting whales and other marine life
* Federal advisory councils often dysfunctional, lack leadership and can't build consensus
* Disagreement among NGOs on how to define problem and goal
* No party has enough leverage to force an agreement

The Goal
All parties involved accomplish their goals (i.e. national security, well-trained military personnel, marine mammal protection) while adhering to the Marine Mammal Protection Act

Sources of Conflict
Stakeholders firmly in camps such as science OR politics OR advocacy, while few trained and active in more than one camp
Scientific uncertainty about impacts of sonar on marine mammals
* Navy in denial of the problem and rebuffing attempts to negotiate and avert litigation
* Some environmental groups and industry reps gain by prolonging conflict and stalemate
* Navy isn't required to file environmental impact statement, but use unilateral action as a "nuclear option"

More research on strandings and impacts of mid-frequency sonar
Parties willing to come to the table and avoid last resort of litigation
* Litigation forces Navy and industry to come to the table
* Find suitable locations/times to test and use sonar that will not impact whales
* Navy technicians and whale scientists can collaborate to find novel solutions
* More personal interaction and problem-solving among stakeholders

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