NATO exercise Neo
Causes Mass Whale Beachings and Deaths
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY / AP 10oct02
MADRID, Spain — Preliminary scientific tests on dead whales point to undersea noise from naval maneuvers by Spain and other NATO countries as the likely cause of the mass stranding of 15 whales in the Canary Islands, a scientist said Wednesday. The tests, commissioned by the regional government of Spain's Canary Islands, is strengthening suspicions that powerful sonar equipment used in these and other naval exercises may interfere with the sound waves emitted by the species known as the beaked whale, which they use to locate food.
"This would be the seventh time there is a coincidence ... between NATO exercises and the stranding of beaked whales" since 1985, said Michel Andre, a veterinary scientist leading the tests.
Nine Cuvier's beaked whales were found dead on Sept. 24-25 after they washed up on the Canary Islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. Six more beached whales were released back into the sea while another two were spotted floating lifeless off the coast.
At the same time, 10 NATO countries — Germany, Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Britain, Turkey, and the United States — were conducting a multinational exercise known as Neo Tapon 2002. The maneuvers are meant to practice securing the strategic Strait of Gibraltar, 900 kilometers (550 miles) northeast of the islands, according to the Spanish Defense Ministry.
Defense Minister Federico Trillo, responding to a question in the Senate from a Canary legislator, said the ministry was investigating the beachings. He added that there were no plans to suspend the annual exercise.
Andre, a veterinary researcher at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, stressed that the findings did not establish a direct relationship between sonar from the NATO vessels and the stranding. However, he added that after preliminary tests "the only cause which we cannot rule out ... is acoustic impact."
The researcher said autopsies on the dead whales found brain damage consistent with impacts from military sonar signals. The tests also demonstrated the whales were otherwise "healthy and in good shape" before their deaths. A second set of tests focussing on the inner ears, expected to take a few weeks, is expected to establish the cause of the beaching with greater certainty, he said.
The Cuvier's beaked whale is a toothed cetacean found around the world, usually in groups of up to 25 family members. Adults range from five to eight meters (17 to 26 feet) in length. Beachings of beaked whale groups coinciding with military exercises have previously occurred in the Bahamas, Greece, and one other time in the same Canary Islands, according to Andre.
Last weekend, more than 1,000 people demonstrated in front of a Spanish government building, demanding that the waters around the islands be declared a whale sanctuary off limits to military maneuvers, according to Spanish press reports. Richard Page of the environmental group Greenpeace said military exercises are just another environmental threat — along with oil drilling, shipping, and industrial pollution — that "are pushing animals out of their preferred feeding and breeding places."
NATO blamed for dead whales
TED HARRISON / The Guardian (UK) 28sep02
The Canary Islands authorities have asked NATO to halt a naval exercise in the area, fearing it may be responsible for the death of 17 whales washed up on the coast of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote this week. The heads of six Cuvier's beaked whales have been taken to the veterinary department of Las Palmas University for examination, in particular to discover if their inner ears were damaged by pressure from sonar devices.
The exercise Neo Tapon 2002, organised by the Spanish navy and involving about 30 NATO ships and submarines, is being held in the Atlantic between the Canaries and Gibraltar.
They include the US frigate De Wert, which specialises in anti-submarine warfare.
Two months ago a new sonar system, Surtass LFA, was authorised for US naval use, despite fierce lobbying by conservationists who claimed that sonar had been responsible for the mass death of whales in the Mediterranean and off the Bahamas.
The US government gave the navy a five-year exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act after tests led to the conclusion that the system was unlikely to injure marine mammals.
One of the independent marine biologists conducting the tests, Dr Kurt Fristrup, said: "If the stranding is tightly correlated in time and space to the NATO exercise, this will be another clear indication of an environmental issue that must be studied."
A Greenpeace spokesman in the Canaries said the link was clear, but a NATO spokesman said that by the time the whales were found dead the ships involved were 500 miles to the north-east.
The Surtass LFA system can transmit signals as powerful as 215 decibels and the US navy says its use is vital in helping to detect super-quiet submarines. Some scientists believe that a whale's eardrums can explode at 180 decibels.
Beaked whales which were studied after the Bahamas incident in March 2000, when eight died, were found to be bleeding from the ears, and there was evidence of damage consistent with an intense pressure injury.
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