Testing the Waters (continued)

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The Navy says it plans to use binoculars and hydrophones to watch and listen for whales that are too close. “They can’t do that,” says Weilgart. “It’s bogus.” That’s because whales are only near the surface a fraction of the time, she says, and they often stop singing as soon as they hear a noise, such as that of a boat. In anticipation of such criticism, the Navy is now scrambling to develop a high-frequency sonar “fish finder” to improve detection. Even with this new technology, Fristrup says they can guarantee only a 70-percent detection rate.

But even a 100-percent success rate may not satisfy LFAS opponents. According to Roger Gentry of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who has reviewed the draft EIS, the one-kilometer cushion is based on the assumption that anything up to 180 decibels is safe enough for animals at that distance. Although scientists differ on how to translate underwater sounds into their above-water equivalents, 180 decibels is comparable to what you’d hear at a Metallica concert.

What is certain is that, because sound as measured in decibels increases logarithmically, 180 decibels is 400 times louder than 155 decibels — the maximum intensity to which whales were exposed during the EIS testing. Fristrup, Tyack, and Clark said they would be reluctant or unwilling to participate in a test involving exposing animals to a 180-decibel sound level. Although there is no definitive data on whales, based on what scientists know about other mammals, 180 decibels is about the level at which, depending on the conditions again, some species will suffer temporary hearing loss.

Nevertheless, the Navy appears determined to go forward. “The public doesn’t have to approve this document,” says EIS Program Director Joe Johnson. You will, however, have 30 to 60 days to comment after the draft EIS is released. After the public comment period is over, the Navy will produce a final version of the EIS. Although the NRDC will attempt to force the Navy to apply to the National Marine Fisheries Service for permission to deploy LFAS, the Navy claims deployment only requires approval from, you guessed it, the Navy.

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