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Smarten up naval sonar to save the whales

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At risk are not only some of the most vulnerable whale populations on Earth – including the last remaining 300 North Atlantic right whales and the 83 critically endangered southern resident killer whales off the Washington coast – but the very fabric of life among species that, over eons in the dark ocean, have evolved to depend on sound as we depend on sight. According to government scientists, the "loss of even a single individual right whale may contribute to the extinction of the species."

In recent decades, a growing number of mass whale mortalities around the world have occurred in the shadow of military sonar training, in coastal waters as diverse as the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, Greece, North Carolina, Hawaii, Washington State, and many others. According to scientists – including the Navy's own consultants – there is no longer any doubt that sonar kills whales, whether by stranding or massive internal hemorrhaging – akin to what human divers experience as the "bends."

Nor, as the Navy has argued, is sonar's impact a necessary consequence of securing our national defense. Most of the harm to marine mammals authorized by the Bush administration could be avoided by the use of common sense safeguards, many of which the Navy has used in past training exercises without apparent problem.

Simple steps such as avoiding sensitive areas like marine sanctuaries, critical habitats, and feeding or breeding grounds; adopting adequate monitoring and safety zones around the sonar device; powering down in ocean conditions of particular acoustic risk; and implementing ship based, aerial, and underwater techniques to monitor when marine mammals are present enable a protective response.

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