Protecting Whales and Dolphins
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, (WDCS), along with eleven other groups, have gone to court to try to stop the US Navy from building a US warfare training site east of Jacksonville, Florida. The area happens to be the only known calving area for endangered North Atlantic right whales. So I called Erich Hoyt, Senior Research Fellow and Programme Head for Critical Habitat/MPAs for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, to find out more.
Erich reports that the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service have acknowledged that the training site may impact right whales and other species in the area. (The National Marine Fisheries Service manages marine sites and marine mammals and is responsible for enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Erich told me.) In spite of this, however, the Navy has decided to construct the site. Promises that they will evaluate the impacts after the site has been built do not satisfy environmentalists who can’t imagine the Navy spending that kind of money and then not using the site.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, along with the eleven other groups, feel that these impacts must be addressed first and that mitigation plans need to be developed before the site is constructed.
The US Navy has acknowledged that their sonar caused Cuvier’s Beaked Whales off the Bahamas to strand. Training exercises involving sonar have also caused whales to strand elsewhere, including the Mediterranean and off the Canary Islands. The US Navy is interested in these results, and apparently are trying to find out more about the impacts of their sonar. I like to believe that many US Navy people enjoy the sea so much that they also care about whales and dolphins.
The problem is that underwater, “noise travels so fast and far that something that might not seem to be a problem on land is quickly a big problem under the sea,” Erich reflected. I remember as a child, swimming off an island beach, hearing what sounded like the engine of a motorboat almost on top of me. I burst to the surface, expecting to see the boat and was surprised when I couldn’t locate it. It was not yet within view. I continued my swim but looked up every few minutes until finally the small boat came into view. I can only imagine how unnerving the noise must be to whales that can’t understand what’s happening.
Further, whales and dolphins are very dependent on sound. The background noise of the container ships that are on the ocean has doubled every decade since the 1950s as the number of ships grew. Scientists, Erich told me, have found evidence of whales communicating using louder sounds and blue whales using lower noises. The supposed link is being investigated.
This is not only an American issue. It’s a Canadian issue as well, Erich pointed out. North Atlantic right whales migrate north and feed in summertime off of the Bay of Fundy and the coast of New Brunswick. They go to Florida to breed. So they summer in Canada and winter in Florida – sounds like they do their own version of snowbirding!
Erich has written several books, including one about marine protected areas. Entitled Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (Earthscan, 2005, 516 pp), it is in its second edition and is available on Amazon.com. It features protected areas around the world which include marine mammals. “There are about 600 of them existing or proposed worldwide,” Erich commented, but many of them “are too small to be really effective”. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society is campaigning to establish 12 representative, large, highly-protected areas or networks. Some of these are actually networks of several marine protected areas that protect migrating whales.