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Research Involving Sonic Blasts Halted

Judge issues temporary order after activists contend the sound used by ship off Baja killed whales. Scientists deny the allegation.

October 29, 2002|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

A U.S. District Court order Monday temporarily halted a scientific voyage in the Gulf of California to map the sea floor using sound blasts that may have caused the deaths of two beaked whales.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order against the National Science Foundation-sponsored project to examine the yawning rift in the sea floor caused by the movement in the Earth's crust.

"We have turned off the sound. Everything is shut down on the ship," said Curt Suplee, a National Science Foundation spokesman.

The research involved firing powerful air guns into the seabed so that researchers could map the area through acoustic signals that bounce back. The technology has been widely used in other oceans, Suplee said.

Researchers have found no evidence that the sonic blasts caused the whale deaths, Suplee said. But they will comply with the federal court order, which ends the expedition scheduled to finish by Nov. 4.

The judge's order came in response to a lawsuit by the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity, which argued that the federally funded project failed to comply with U.S. environmental laws and posed potential irreparable harm to marine mammals.

"We're delighted that the judge ordered a halt to this dangerous and illegal project," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. "We needed to stop them from carrying out seismic research that has been linked to whale deaths."

On Sept. 18, researchers aboard the 239-foot research vessel Maurice Ewing began doing zigzag patterns in the ocean off the eastern shore of the Baja peninsula to map a long-developing rift caused by the shifting of continental plates.

The ship, operated by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was operating on a $1.6-million National Science Foundation grant.

"To the best of our knowledge, there has never been a report of injury to a marine mammal," Suplee said. "We are not interested in slaughtering marine wildlife. That's not what we do."

Yet on Sept. 25, vacationing marine scientists discovered a pair of Cuvier beaked whales that had washed ashore dead on Isla San Jose off the Baja coast. The scientists found no wounds or obvious cause of death other than reddening of the cheeks.

Other beaked whales that washed ashore in the Bahamas two years ago and in the Canary Islands last month showed similar signs of burst blood vessels in the head, according to expert analysis.

Ultimately, the deaths of the whales in the Bahamas were blamed on the U.S. Navy's deployment of powerful sonar that ripped apart the delicate tissues of the animals' inner ears and brains.

The suit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity alleged that the federally funded research in the Gulf of California violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the government to analyze in advance any program that could have significant ecological impact.

The suit also argued that the research violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans activity that carries the potential of disturbing marine mammals.

The National Science Foundation argued that those U.S. laws do not apply to the research project because it was operating in Mexican waters.

The Bush administration has tried to exempt a series of offshore operations, including tests of new Navy sonar systems that could affect whales, from such environmental rules. A federal judge in Los Angeles recently rejected those efforts.

Judge Larson indicated that he would issue a written ruling in a few days and set a time for a fuller hearing on the issues.

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