Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Save the Whales!
distributed 5/31/02 - ©2002

Remember your favorite "submarine movie" -- a film like "Das Boot" or "Hunt for Red October" -- and those spellbinding scenes where sound becomes a leading character.

A gifted sonar operator listens for telltale hints of noise from the opponent, and distinguishes friend and foe by the distinctive rumble of their ships. A single sonar "ping" both gives away the sub's presence and produces rich information by the echoes that return. At key moments, members of the sub's crew stand in silence, lest their voices or footsteps be heard by the other sub. Extreme noise is powerful, too. The explosion of a depth charge sends out powerful shock waves; the sonar operator rips off his headphones just before the detonation, and deafening noise fills the entire ship.

Sound takes on a dramatic role in the dark and windowless depths of the ocean. Those films give us a hint of a world that few of us will experience, a world where water-borne sound is both a good friend and a feared enemy.

The deep sea world is home to more than lurking submarines. For millions of years, whales and other marine mammals have used sound to navigate, to find food, and to communicate with others of their kind. Like the human crews of submarines, whales depend on the ability to hear faint and subtle sounds, and they can be deafened and disoriented by loud noises.

Growing levels of noise pollution from ships are already disrupting marine environments. An emerging new technology will make those problems far worse.

The US Navy has plans to deploy Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFA) on several ships around the world. (The navies of Russia and France are working on the same sort of systems.) LFA uses undersea loudspeakers to emit extremely loud, low frequency sonar that creates powerful sound and pressure waves through the water. The sound travels hundreds, in some cases even thousands of miles. The Navy wants to use those far-reaching sound waves to probe the world's oceans in an effort to detect the latest generation of nearly-silent submarines.

The noise from this sonar is so intense that it can traumatize the ear and lung tissue of whales that are close to the source. Over a wider area, the hearing of whales can be damaged by ongoing exposure to the noise. Even far from the sonar source, the behavior of whales -- in feeding, navigation and mating -- will be disrupted by the noise.

Recently, the Navy acknowledged that tests of a much smaller sonar system caused the death of 13 whales in the Bahamas through direct injury and their panicked beaching.

The rallying cry of "Save the whales!" has been voiced primarily around disputes over commercial whaling. The killing of whales for their meat is a very real threat to the population recovery of several endangered or threatened species of whales.

But hunting is not the only danger that humans present to whales. Noise pollution, and especially the implementation of LFA sonar, is a more pervasive, and perhaps more dangerous, threat than harpoons.

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Since September 11, "national security" has been invoked to broaden governmental powers in many areas, including limitations on civil rights and restrictions on public information. Activists and legal experts have raised challenging questions about the scope of changes that are being implemented under the national security banner.

National security claims are also being used in efforts to remove or avoid environmental constraints.

The defensive needs of the military are being used to justify the LFA sonar system, in spite of the recognized environmental dangers that it presents, and even though silent subs are not the tools of terrorists. Legislation is working though the US Congress that would exempt the military from many environmental restrictions. According to an April article in the Washington Post, the bill would "prohibit the federal government from placing the conservation of public lands or the protection of endangered species above the needs of military preparedness."

LFA sonar shows how the environmental impact of a military tool can reach far beyond a local wetland or an obscure species. The noise disruption of this system will fill entire ocean basins. The sound will impact dozens of well-known and much-loved mammalian species whose wide-ranging migrations link them to ecosystems around the globe.

Our churches should be deeply involved in the ethical debate about how to balance military and defensive matters with broader measures of the common good. The threats to local and global environments need to be included in those deliberations, alongside important questions of human rights. And, beyond intellectual and theological debates, we need to communicate our views on these issues -- as people of faith -- to our political leaders.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

For more on LFA sonar and whales, see a three-part article from CNN, or a shorter report from the National Resources Defense Council.

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