Navy Testing Suspected In Porpoise Deaths

Northwesterners are blaming the U.S. Navy for the 13 harbor porpoises found ashore with blood flowing from their ears and nostrils. On May 5, a Navy destroyer tested new sonar technology in the Haro Strait, between Canada's Vancouver Island and Washington's San Juan County. The 200-plus decibels emitted from the sonar, 1 million times more intense than a jet plane take-off, is suspected to have caused acoustic pressures unbearable to marine mammals.

Harbor porpoises and orcas navigate acoustically and rely on their ears to “see.” Tom McMillen, a whale-watch tour operator who was in the Haro Strait on May 5, told the Seattle Times that he saw about 20 orcas and 100 porpoises scatter at high speeds, leaping in the air. In March 2000, seven whales in the Bahamas were found beached and suffering from acoustic pressure trauma. Government studies linked their deaths to Navy sonar.

Harvard University marine scientist Darlene Ketten says it is too early to blame the Navy. Both government and independent organizations are currently doing tests on the porpoises.

The Navy is now making plans to test the loudest sonar to date, the SURTASS LFA (Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active). The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) is suing to stop the Navy from using the SURTASS LFA and other high-power sonar. A ruling is expected by the end of August.

The Navy may also face lawsuits over its test firing of depleted uranium (DU) shells in prime fishing grounds off the Washington coast. Although the Navy insists DU poses no threat to the environment, DU is a toxic, radioactive substance that is suspected of links to high rates of cancer in Iraqi civilians and to Gulf War Syndrome illnesses in U.S. and British soldiers. The military uses the metal in munitions because its high density allows it to penetrate even heavily armored equipment.

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