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Whales Lost in a Noise Cocktail

If you follow environmental news, you’ve probably heard about the fight over sonar between those interested in whale conservation and welfare and the military. There’s a couple of theories about why sonar causes beaching and death in whales, especially new, more powerful sonar. One theory is that the whales dive too deep and too fast to try to avoid the sonar and this causes pressure sickness (just like in human divers) and internal hemorrhaging. Another theory is that the sonar simply causes the hemorrhaging on its own. I’m not really feeling up to doing a bunch of research to track down the specific science, but there is a lot of information available online. Sonar’s only part of the problem though. Noise pollution from ships and seismic work are also making it difficult for whales to communicate, find food and connect with mates. The blue whale’s “acoustic range” is said to have been cut back 90%. In an article by the Associated Press on the topic, the effect was described as being like a cocktail party where everyone’s speaking at once, so everyone keeps raising the volume of their own voice until eventually it’s almost impossible to hear one another. This is what marine life is having to deal with everyday, all day, their whole lives, and many of them need their sense of hearing just to navigate. From an ethical standpoint, what humanity is inflicting on these wide-ranging species is probably far worse than we’re even able to imagine, their very existence threatened by it, never mind that it’s just plain inconsiderate and inhumane.

The trouble is, while it’s nice that some scientists and conservation groups are coming forward to try to restrain the military’s use of the worst types of sonar and to try to cut back on ship traffic and enact restrictions, this is a situation where cooperation and mutual agreement and restraint are required. The American military isn’t going to agree to stop using sonar or restrict its use if other countries don’t do the same. And even if they agree publicly, it’s pretty hard to enforce this kind of thing. The same sort of problems come up for ship traffic and seismic work. The bottom line is that the only way to get people to universally recognize the harm these activities cause and then limit them is to change the way people think about these activities and install a strong moral aspect in the common consciousness. And clearly that is possible, because it’s been done before. Some of us already think it’s wrong to eat much seafood if you live in a landlocked place, no matter how often doctors urge us to.

Since I realize it’s one thing to just decide too much shipping, sonar and seismic activity is bad for marine life and another to stop or severely curtail those activities, I’ll offer some fanciful and less fanciful ideas about solutions. First, less shipping could be accomplished and probably will happen somewhat naturally as the global economy contracts and relocalizes because of increased energy costs. There simply won’t be as much product moving and it probably won’t be moving as far, especially the heavy, low value, low density stuff. As for sonar and seismic, go back to the drawing board. The same goes for ship’s motors, in fact. Dream big, in other words. Creates more jobs for R&D and then implementation if quieter motors or less energy intensive ships (smaller motors, less sound pollution) and different technology for the military becomes de rigueur or simply regulation. Maybe we could create a whale conservation economy, sort of like one based on green building and energy efficiency. Or we could just stop doing war and learn to cooperate, and then there’d be no need for military sonar and all those endlessly patrolling ships and subs. That’s about as fanciful as it gets.

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