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Group Blames Whale Deaths on Seismic Testing

It demands a halt to mapping of the sea floor. Researchers say no link is proved.

October 16, 2002|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

Following the deaths of two beaked whales near the southern tip of Baja California, environmental advocates demanded Tuesday that federally funded researchers suspend their efforts to map an underwater rift in the Earth's crust with powerful air guns.

Five vacationing marine scientists who had chartered a sailboat in the Gulf of California late last month happened on the two stranded whales on the shore of Isla San Jose, an island 150 miles north of Cabo San Lucas.

Local fishermen told the group that the whales were alive when they beached themselves Sept. 24, but were dead by the time the group found them, said one of the five scientists, Jay Barlow, who heads the National Marine Fisheries Service's coastal marine mammal research in California.

The group spotted a large vessel offshore, and contacted its captain by radio to ask him to call a marine biologist they knew in nearby La Paz to begin an investigation.

According to Barlow, the captain said he was unable to help because he was doing seismic testing.

"The scientists immediately put the two together: dead beaked whales at the same time that this survey is going forward," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Los Angeles-based Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization.

After halting seismic tests for several days after the discovery of the whales, the team on the research vessel resumed its work this week, arguing that there is no proof of a link between the project and the whale deaths.

Environmental advocates say the seismic project is breaking federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans behavior that carries even the potential of disrupting marine mammals; and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the government to analyze in advance any program that could have a significant ecological impact.

The whales are the same type that died after controversial military exercises in the Bahamas and the Canary Islands, apparently resulting, most recently, in the deaths of 15 whales off northwest Africa. A preliminary analysis of the African whales has indicated that high-intensity sonar caused them ear and brain trauma.

The discovery of the dead whales in Baja comes as environmental advocates are preparing to head to court in San Francisco in an attempt to block the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service from deploying a powerful new sonar system.

The Bush administration has tried to exempt a broad range of activities, including tests of Navy sonar systems that could affect whales, from environmental review. A federal judge in Los Angeles has rejected those efforts.

The 239-foot seismic testing vessel Maurice Ewing is operated by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which is based in New York. The scientists on board are funded by a $1.6-million grant from the federal government's National Science Foundation, said James Yoder, director of the foundation's Division of Ocean Sciences.

Lamont-Doherty Director Graham Michael Purdy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

According to the foundation, the seismic research is meant to provide the first detailed map of a long-developing crack in the Earth's crust -- believed to be the same fissure system that flows north through California, incorporates the San Andreas fault and contributes to the potential for earthquakes on the West Coast.

The project is using a synchronized system of 20 powerful air guns that can register 220 decibels -- more powerful even than the sonar blamed in the deaths of whales elsewhere, Reynolds said.

The group that found the whales had hoped to do a necropsy, but the whales were too decomposed by the time a marine biologist arrived.

"I don't see how it can possibly be resolved given the information that is available in this case," Yoder said. "To establish scientific proof of a link is impossible ... there was no necropsy."

Curt Suplee, a foundation spokesman in Arlington, Va., said the agency is concerned about the whales but is weighing a number of factors in determining how to proceed.

"We're not closed-minded. We'll be happy to look at any evidence," Suplee said. "But it's difficult to say what is a sensible use of tax money and what is a responsible way to conduct a valuable scientific project.

"Should you cancel it on basically the inference that something might have damaged these animals? Or should you let it continue until you get something approximating evidence? At present, the expedition is going to continue."

The research vessel has attempted to safeguard against the deaths of more whales by, among other things, placing observers on deck with binoculars in an attempt to avoid them.

Environmental advocates say those measures fall short. The observers, for example, can see only the water's surface, far above the depths where most whales spend the bulk of their time, the advocates point out.

Reynolds called the argument that there is no proven link between the research and the deaths "pretty weak."

"As you are certainly aware, the Gulf of California is an extraordinarily rich marine habitat for a broad range of species, including one of the most significant populations of beaked whales in the world," Reynolds wrote last week to Lamont-Doherty and the National Science Foundation.

"Given this fact and the recognized risks associated with the use of intense low-frequency sound, we are dismayed that there was apparently no attempt to conduct a meaningful assessment of the survey's environmental risks before allowing it to proceed."

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