This morning we received the first official response to the letter from 20 marine scientists regarding silencing sonar in the Salish Sea. The response (below) came from the head of the Canadian Navy — Peter MacKay, the Minister of National Defence in Canada — 60 days after receipt of the scientists’ letter. It implies that discussions have been initiated between the Department of National Defence (DND), the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and Environment Canada. This seems to set the stage for re-evaluating how (or even whether) the Canadian Navy trains in the habitat of marine species of concern.
Dear Mr. Veirs: Thank you for your email of March 1, 2012, concerning military sonar operations in the Salish Sea. I understand your concerns about the conduct of military operations and training exercises and their effect on critical habitat and the Southern Resident Killer Whale population. To that end, subject matter experts from the Department of National Defence (DND) are working in consultation with staff at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada. The goal is to ensure that the best possible practices are in place so that our activities are conducted in a responsible manner with relation to the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act. Defending Canadians is a top priority for the Government of Canada, and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) needs to conduct regular exercises in our national maritime approaches. These activities ensure RCN overall readiness and familiarity with its primary area of operation. Being conscious of our responsibilities to Canadians, the environment, and its inhabitants, DND is dedicated to continuously improving operational policies and procedures to responsibly manage the impact of military activities. This management will be based on the best scientific information available at the time. I trust this is of assistance, and thank you for your interest in the recovery and preservation of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Your recognition of the importance of the national security role of the RCN is appreciated. Sincerely, Peter MacKay Minister of National Defence
The following open letter was sent today to Governmental and Naval leaders on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. As of 3/11/2012 it has been signed by 20 biologists and bioacousticians who have studied the killer whales of the Salish Sea. (When sent initially, 16 had signed).
- The Honourable Peter MacKay, Minister of National Defence, National Defence Headquarters ( email@example.com )
- Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
- Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator, Office of the Undersecretary, US Department of Commerce ( email@example.com )
- The Honorable Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
Silence Sonar in the Salish Sea
As biologists and bioacousticians who study killer whales of the Salish Sea, we ask that the U.S. Navy and Canadian Navy cease using sonar in their critical habitat. Polluting their environment with intense underwater noise like the “pings” from mid-frequency active sonar poses significant risks to these Federally-listed species.
On February 6, 2012, the Canadian Naval frigate HMCS Ottawa used its sonar system in critical habitat of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales during a training exercise east of Victoria, B.C. The calls of the Southern Residents’ K and L pods were heard 18 hours later in Haro Strait, and sub-groups of K and L pods were identified 36 hours after the sonar use in Discovery Bay – a location where Southern Residents have never been sighted in 22 years of records. These observations are reminiscent of an incident in May, 2003, when the USS Shoup’s sonar training exercise caused similar unusual nearshore surface milling behavior of Southern Residents in Haro Strait.
New limits should be put on the use of mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar, particularly in the critical habitat of the Southern Residents. Killer whales are sensitive to the frequencies emitted by MFA sonar (2-10 kHz) and use the same frequency range to communicate with calls and whistles. Because MFA sonar is intense (source levels ~220-235 underwater decibels), it could permanently or temporarily deafen whales that are unexpectedly nearby and thereby impact their ability to forage, navigate, and socialize. Even temporary threshold shifts could be deleterious because the recovery of the Southern Residents hinges on their use of echolocation to find, identify, and acquire their primary prey, Pacific salmon.
Current procedures for mitigating underwater military noise are inadequate to protect either the resident or transient ecotypes. These procedures depend on the ability to detect whales within 1000 yards (U.S.) or 4000 yards (Canada), which neither passive acoustic listening nor visual surveillance can reliably accomplish. The unprecedented sighting of Southern Residents in Discovery Bay suggests that they may have been present during the pre-dawn sonar exercise on February 6 while remaining undetected by the Canadian Navy’s marine mammal monitoring procedures. Moreover, we know from the 2003 Shoup incident and the scientific literature that MFA sonar can disrupt marine mammal behavior well beyond the current mitigation distances, particularly in the sound propagation conditions of the Salish Sea.
We therefore urge the U.S. and Canadian Navies to restrict MFA sonar and other intense underwater sound sources in all training and testing conducted in the Salish Sea. By protecting the whales’ acoustic habitat, our Navies can help further their respective country’s obligations to ensure the recovery of these endangered iconic populations while still fulfilling their important National security missions.
- David Bain, Ph.D
- Robin Baird, Research Biologist, Cascadia Research Collective
- Stefan Bråger, Research Director/Curator, The Whale Museum
- John Calambokidis, Research Biologist, Cascadia Research Collective
- Fred Felleman, Vice-President, Board of Directors, The Whale Museum
- Andrew Foote, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
- Deborah Giles, MSc, PhD Candidate/Research Biologist, UC Davis
- Rachael Griffin, B.Sc. Marine Biology, Aquagreen Marine Research, Victoria, BC
- Erin Heydenreich, Field Biologist, Senior staff at the Center for Whale Research
- Cara Lachmuth, MSc., Contract Biologist, Victoria, BC
- Patrick Miller, Lecturer, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, Scotland
- Joseph Olson, President, Cetacean Research Technology
- Richard Osborne, Ph.D., Research Associate, The Whale Museum
- Paul Spong, Director, OrcaLab and Pacific Orca Society, Alert Bay, BC
- Helena Symonds, Director, OrcaLab and Pacific Orca Society, Alert Bay, BC
- Scott Veirs, President, Beam Reach Marine Science and Sustainability School
- Val Veirs, Professor of Physics, Colorado College
- Monika Wieland, BA in Biology, Reed College
- Jason Wood, Ph.D., Research Associate, The Whale Museum
- Harald Yurk, Research Associate, Vancouver Aquarium
The following recipients were copied on the email:
- Senator Patty Murray
- Senator Maria Cantwell
- Representative Norm Dicks
- Representative Jay Inslee
- Governor Chris Gregoire
- Will Stelle, NOAA NW Regional Administer
- Lynne Barre, NOAA NW Regional Office
- Brad Hason, NOAA NWFSC
- Dr. John Ford, DFO
- Admiral Cecil D. Haney, Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet
- Rear Admiral Douglass T. Biesel, Commander Navy Region Northwest
- Renee Wallis, Navy Region NW
- Lieutenant Diane Larose, Canadian Navy Public Affairs
Regional “Points of Contact” (POCs) for further information:
Admiral Cecil D. Haney
Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet
Rear Admiral Douglass T. Biesel
Commander Navy Region Northwest
Lieutenant Diane Larose
Navy Public Affairs
Washington State ferry workers and passengers on the Clinton-Mukilteo route heard sonar sounds above water (presumably coming through the hull) that lasted for about an hour this afternoon (Wednesday 2/29/2012). Jenny Atkinson, Executive Director of The Whale Museum said that the Washington State Ferries operations center had called the Musuem’s stranding/sighting hotline to report that the ferry workers on the Clinton-Mukilteo run were complaining about sonar noises this afternoon. Dr. Jason Wood, a bioacoustician and Research Associate with the Museum, requested further details from the operations center and obtained this chronology:
- 15:49 Approximate local Pacific time that sonar pings begin
- 15:54 First call from ferry workers to operations center stating that sonar pings had started 5 minutes before.
- 16:30 A second call is received saying pings are still loud in the ferry’s engine room
- Total duration of sonar pinging was ~ 1 hour
He also learned that:
“The crew in the engine room, the captain, and passengers could hear the sonar, at times so loudly that the ferry agent on land could hear the sonar coming up through the ferry while it was at the dock…. The operations center called the Everett Naval base, but got no answers. They also called the coast guard. No naval or coast guard vessels were reported seen during the sonar incident, other than a naval vessel at the dock in the Everett Navy yard.”
However, Susan Berta and Howard Garrett of Orca Network had noticed a Coast Guard cutter on the marinetraffic.com real-time AIS web site the same afternoon “down between the south end of Camano Islands, Whidbey Island, and & Everett.” Susan wrote “I can’t recall exactly what time, but it had to be mid-late afternoon – I remember looking on the map several times to see if there were any vessels in Saratoga Passage, and noticed a Coast Guard vessel in the south end of Saratoga Passage.”
Using the replay feature of the Siitech.com real-time AIS web site suggests that the vessel was the Coast Guard Cutter FIR (MMSI 369915000, see frame grab below). However, this vessel appears to have been at anchor — at least in the early afternoon — and based on the listed characteristics, the CGC FIR does not carry an active sonar system.
With no other suspect vessels archived in the AIS data, we fall back to the likelihood that the U.S. Navy was involved. Jason wonders “Is is possible that they would test sonar from the dock?”
Interestingly, Mike Francis of Oregonian foresaw that such “pierside testing” was likely to become a contentious issue when he wrote about the new Navy proposed EIS on Monday (2/27/2012). The Federal Register also mentions that the Study Area of the proposed EIS would include “pierside locations” for testing. After studying the lengthy EIS, Mike pulled out this single quote:
“The Proposed Action includes pierside sonar testing conducted as part of overhaul, modernization, maintenance and repair activities at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Naval Base Kitsap at Bangor and Naval Station Everett.”
So, are there any vessels currently at Naval Station Everett that carry Mid-Frequency Active sonar? Well, for starters it is the home port of our old friend the USS Shoup which just a few weeks ago emerged from 7-months of improvements in Seattle, including to its “combat systems.” It seems likely that the Shoup was testing its AN/SQS-53C(V)4 Hull Mounted Sonar (or possibly an updated system).
Confirmation of Shoup sonar testing on 3/2/2012 from Navy Region Northwest:
We’ve received two responses from Sheila Murray, the External Relations Manager from Navy Region Northwest.
On 3/2/12 9:25 Sheila Murray wrote:
The Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar at Naval Station Everett yesterday. This is routine testing that is a longstanding and ongoing requirement, and is an essential process in preparing a Navy ship to get underway. Pierside testing is not continuous, but consists of very brief transmissions of acoustic energy interspersed with longer silent periods. Hopefully, this answers your question?
Sheila Sheila Murray, External Relations Manager
Navy Region Northwest Public Affairs 1100 Hunley Rd. Silverdale,WA 98315
On 3/2/12 3:27 PM, Sheila Murray responded to further inquiries, adding these details:
After receiving approval from Commander Pacific Fleet, the Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency sonar equipment Wednesday afternoon…. USS Shoup was at Everett conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar Wednesday afternoon.
There are also other Navy vessels which make Everett their home port… Or, was a U.S. submarine in the vicinity ensuring the path would be clear and safe for the inbound aircraft carrier USS Stennis which is due back in Bremerton this Friday around 11:30 a.m.?
There’s more acoustic analysis to be done about the potential effects of this new sonar incident, especially since harbor porpoises have been observed more frequently in the area and a grey whale was sighted simultaneous to the sonar use. Susan wrote this afternoon on the Orca Network Facebook page:
“Yay!! Just saw a Gray whale from our office window, 4:35 pm! It appears to be feeding of the very tip of Fox Spit/East Pt, in Saratoga Passage, near the entrance to Holmes Harbor. I think it may be moving north, but not sure yet – cool!!”
Is the U.S. Navy “pinging in the pool” again, immediately after a new EIS is out for public scoping?
We’re still trying to assess whether damage was done by the sonar used by the Canadian Naval frigate Ottawa on 2/6/2012. But first we have to walk the beaches again — this time in our own backyard — looking for injured marine mammals.
Update on 3/2/2012 from Susan Berta of Orca Network:
The sonar continues today (Friday 3/2/2012). Observers on a dock in Everett about 200 yards from a Naval ship that may have been doing the sonar testing heard pings that lasted about 10 seconds and described them as “REALLY LOUD.” The Coast Guard boat FIR was anchored there again, but it is not clear if they are involved in the testing.
At 4:35 pm WSF operations reported that the Mukilteo/Clinton crew again began hearing sonar again today at 1400. They made some calls & were told sonar testing will continue today until 2200 and will take place again next Wednesday 3/7 and Friday 3/9.
We have had reports of a gray whale off Langley this afternoon, but are not sure how sonar impacts them. The Navy is doing the testing near one of the Grays’ favorite feeding areas at a time the whales are definitely present.
Update on 3/8/2012:
The home page of the Washington State Ferries has a link to this blog post within one of the three revolving highlights. See screenshot below. Apparently, their engineers have been complaining a lot about the sonar pings that they hear through the ferry hulls on the Mukilteo-Clinton route.