A federal appeals court allowed the Navy to resume using underwater sonar blasts in anti-submarine warfare tests off Southern California despite possible harm to endangered whales, saying the nation’s military needs come first. Underwater sound waves could harm nearly 30 species of marine mammals, including five species of endangered whales. The Navy’s planned protective measures were “woefully inadequate and ineffectual,” said U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in a previous ruling and cited the Navy’s estimate that the tests would cause 466 permanent injuries to whales. So what is it about whales that is causing all the fuss? Why does it matter that the whales are being harmed, and what can we do about it? Neil Pelkey, assistant professor of environmental science and studies and information technology, talks about the purpose these creatures have in our environment.
What do whales do for our environment? What would losing them mean?
There’s an aesthetic to them. People like them, humans value them, we like having them around. Also, the food chain would be messed up. There are kelp beds that are preyed upon by urchins. The urchins are kept in line by the otters. The otters by sharks, the sharks by whales. Kelp is important to the environment. Whales keep the balance. When a whale dies it creates a whale fall at the bottom of the ocean. This whale fall helps to stimulate and an entire sea floor ecosystem made up of bizarre little sea creatures that we don’t know much about yet.
Without whales, our atmosphere would fill up with methane and we’d all die. There are methane hydrates on the sea floor that have certain bacteria, and if the whales aren’t there to balance that level, the methane gets into the air and then we’d all be in trouble.
What is so harmful about testing sonar around whales?
Sonar is how whales and dolphins navigate. The navy has done tests and admits that whales and dolphins in the area of sonar testing show anecdotal brain damage. This brain damage screws up their navigation system. A whale has to make it from say, California to Antarctica in 3 months. If they’re off by 3 to 5 days, there can be serious problems.
Would this be considered an environmental issue or an animal’s rights issue?
Whales are large, slow-reproducing creatures. Because of this, there has to be a balance of how many can be killed. We can’t be sure how many whales the navy kills, because they are acting under security issues. Killing a whale and then not using the nutrients of the whale for anything is just wasteful and there is no economic gain.
Does the government have the right to approve these kinds of procedures and testing when animals’ lives are at stake?
If they need to, then they have to go through the appropriate legal procedures such as the Endangered Species Act. The Navy, however, can’t be capricious in their findings either. I mean, legally they do have the right to not answer because it’s a security issue, but they shouldn’t say no.
What kind of room is there for environmentalism in politics? What role should we play?
There is a big part of politics that is environmentallly oriented, from zoning to the Endangered Species Act. What students should do is join clubs or intern for the EPA or just get involved. You can do everything from radical activism like the Butterfly girl, tying herself to a tree to save a species of butterflies, to just recycling. The easiest way to get involved though, is to harass Denny Johnson until he gets rid of his big monster truck.
Rachel Kern, ’09, Juniata Online Journalist