Several articles about Seismic testing in Gulf of California and beached whales, including lawsuit to stop NSF-owned ship from testing

BySUE CHANAPOctober 16, 2002, 4:56 PM

Judge: Stop Whale-Harming Research

A federal judge ordered the National Science Foundation on Monday to stop firing sound blasts into the Gulf of California because it harms whales. Magistrate Judge James Larson sided with conservationists who said sound blasts used to map the ocean floor have disrupted marine life in the ocean between Baja California and mainland Mexico. Larson ordered such aspects of a $1.6 million research project undertaken by the foundation to end immediately.

The Center for Biological Diversity asked the court last week to stop the research, saying two dead whales found on the Mexican coast last month likely beached themselves because of noise from air guns aboard the government vessel. Government lawyers argued environmentalists had proven no connection between the beached whales and noise from the air guns. James Coda, assistant U.S. attorney for Northern California, said the government may appeal.

A mass stranding of 15 beaked whales happened Sept. 24-25 in Spain’s Canary Islands, where naval maneuvers were taking place. One of the biologists who found the dead whales in Mexico said preliminary tests had linked the Spanish beaching to underwater noise from the maneuvers.

“When we heard they were using high-intensity sounds offshore (for the mapping), I think all our heads clicked onto the possibility that this could have been caused by the research,” the biologist, Jay Barlow, a National Marine Fisheries Service scientist in San Diego, said Tuesday. He said some scientists suspect intense underwater sounds like a warship’s sonar may confuse beaked whales, which emit sound waves to search for food.

The National Science Foundation owns the vessel from which the researchers are sending out the sound signals, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University is operating the ship. Lamont-Doherty officials said they have taken additional steps to limit the impact of the work, including reducing the intensity of the sound signals, restricting the research area, limiting operations to daylight, and enlisting Mexican researchers to monitor marine mammal activity. Mexican President Vicente Fox has declared all of his nation’s waters a preserve for whales. Of the 81 known species of whales, 39 are found in Mexican waters, and some breed off the Baja California peninsula.

© 2002 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


January 2003

Whales beach seismic research

On Sept. 25, five vacationing marine biologists sailing in Mexico’s Gulf of California came across two recently beached Cuvier’s beaked whales. Surprised by the find, the biologists wanted to contact a Mexican colleague to perform necropsies to determine why the whales had died – but the radio on the sailboat was not strong enough to reach the researcher, 40 miles away. The biologists hailed a nearby ship, hoping to use its satellite phone.

The ship was the Maurice Ewing operated by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The biologists quickly learned that the ship, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), had been pulsing the ocean with high-powered sound waves to map the lithosphere beneath the ocean floor. Aware of recent correlations between Navy sonar exercises and beaked whale deaths, the biologists immediately suspected the sound waves had fatally disoriented the whales.

Environmental lawyers got wind of the incident and took the issue to court. On Oct. 30, the Northern California District Court issued a temporary restraining order halting the surveys. The Court found that it was likely that both the acoustic blasts were irreparably harming marine mammals and that NSF had violated U.S. environmental laws – criteria strong enough to grant a temporary stop. While important legal questions remain, the restraining order shut the door on a major research initiative more than 10 years in the making.

“It was a huge blow,” explains geophysicist Steven Holbrook, from the University of Wyoming, who was one of the four primary investigators on board the Ewing at the time of the strandings.

The geophysicists were working in the Gulf of California because it is one of the two best places in the world to study a complete rift complex that is actively driving continents apart, explains Michael Purdy, director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Understanding rifting is a major scientific objective within the NSF-funded MARGINS program that supported the Ewing cruise. The other prime candidate for studying rifting is the Red Sea, but no cruises to that location have been funded.

The powerful air guns on the Ewing generate high-resolution images of the lithosphere that read like deep roadcuts into Earth, detailing the shapes and distributions of rock layers five miles or more below the ocean floor. “This is a methodology that has evolved over several decades, and we use it because it is the best,” Purdy says.

The marine biologists initially suspected that the Ewing was to blame because the strandings fit a pattern, explains John Hildebrand, a whale and acoustics specialist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Beaked whale strandings in Greece in 1996 and again in the Bahamas in 2000 occurred at the same time that NATO and the U.S. Navy, respectively, were using high-powered sonar in nearby waters. “If you look at all the recent strandings incidents, about half a dozen, you see a good correspondence between a ship track and the timing of the strandings. And it is consistently beaked whales that is the species most affected,” Hildebrand says.

When researchers on the Ewing first heard of the strandings, they halted all air gun activity. But as evidence came in, it looked unlikely that the Ewing caused the beachings, and so they resumed, Holbrook explains. Spurred by the Bahamas incident, the Navy has done tests concluding that sounds below 180 decibels do not damage marine mammals; intensities above 180 can damage lungs and tissues. The intensity of sound generated by the Ewing air guns falls steeply with distance so that it goes below 180 decibels at 3.2 kilometers from the ship. According to Holbrook, the Ewing was at least 80 kilometers from the whales when they beached, casting doubt on a causal link. When the researchers did resume the seismic profiling, they took several steps to minimize the possibility of harming marine mammals. They reduced sound levels, increased efforts to spot whales and stopped working at night. These steps complemented the Ewing’s standard procedure of slowly ramping up the intensity of the air guns when beginning a seismic survey – allowing any marine mammals in the immediate vicinity to leave before being exposed to dangerous levels of sound.

The additional mitigation efforts limited productivity, explains Holbrook. “From the actual restraining order, we lost six days of work outright. But there was a much greater impact from the voluntary measures we undertook.” The research crew ended up completing little over half of the four transects across the rift that they had intended.

Yet those voluntary measures were not enough, explains Hildebrand, who had informally asked the Marine Mammal Commission to review the planned cruise before it left, after he had discovered that air guns would be used. “The problem is that from visual surveys you only see about 20 percent of these animals because they are deep diving,” he says. That means many whales could be within 3.2 kilometers of the Ewing – the danger zone – without researchers knowing it.

Hildebrand and colleagues presented their concerns at the annual meeting of the Marine Mammal Commission in San Diego, which happened to be scheduled soon after the strandings. Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the California-based Center for Biological Diversity who attended the meeting, quickly saw a need for action. “It was clear to me that the scientists wished the government would do something, but the agency people were not sure they had the right jurisdiction. It was also clear to me that indecision would mean nothing would happen.”

After some digging, Cummings and colleagues found that the National Science Foundation had not applied for permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to do their research. Nor had NSF gone through the environmental assessment procedure required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These alleged violations became the crux of the Center’s law suit.

NSF contended that no evidence connected the Ewing to the beached whales. Furthermore, the Ewing was operating in Mexican waters and therefore was not subject to the U.S. environmental laws. In a letter to the Center for Biological Diversity, Anita Eisenstadt, Assistant General Counsel to NSF, wrote, “Before the cruise began, we obtained all required permissions from the Mexican government because the vessel is operating in Mexican waters.”

While the court decision sided with the environmental lawyers, the restraining order is temporary and does not set a precedent for future cases. It will stay in effect until a more extensive court trial, which will likely happen within the year, determines whether to make the order permanent. The judge may decide that the point is moot, because the temporary restraining order has already stopped the research, and the Ewing has no plans within the foreseeable future to return to the Gulf of California.

Several key questions remain unresolved that will likely come up if another hearing is held. Each side has a different interpretation of the exact timing of the beachings and how close the Ewing was to the whales when they beached. A second question is whether the strandings linked to Navy sonar provide any guide for interpreting the cause of the strandings in this case. The air guns from the Ewing produce acoustic pulses that, at their source, are more intense than the Navy’s sonar. However, whales respond to specific frequencies of disturbance, as well as magnitude, and the air guns operate at a much lower frequency (about 100 hertz) than the Navy sonar (several kilohertz), Holbrook says. Also, the Navy sonar continuously sweeps the ocean with sound waves, while the air guns only fire short acoustic pulses once every 20 to 60 seconds.

A larger question is over the jurisdiction of U.S. environmental laws – do they apply to federally funded ships operating in the waters of other countries? “There is a horrible dearth of legal certainty on this matter,” says Curt Suplee, director of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at NSF. “If you are in the Gulf of California, where every cubic inch of water is in territorial waters or the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Mexico, do these laws apply? The Center for Biological Diversity has the perfect right to seek a different interpretation.” One reason that question has not been fully resolved is that EEZs were established after the NEPA and MMPA laws.

A final court ruling could help resolve these scientific and jurisidictional questions. In the meantime, this case has put the spotlight on NSF, Purdy says. “It is clear that this case has brought the issue into the public scrutiny, and it is clear that we are going to be scrutinized very carefully in the future, and we need to continue to show that we are operating legally and responsibly.”
Greg Peterson

A recent court order stopped the Maurice Ewing from conducting seismic surveys in the Gulf of California on the grounds that the survey’s loud acoustic pulses may have been harming marine mammals. Photo courtesy of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Division of Marine Affairs.


Nature, April 2004

Nature 428, 681 (15 April 2004) | doi:10.1038/428681a

Push to protect whales leaves seafloor research high and dry
See associated Correspondence: Stocker, Nature 430, 291 (July 2004)
Rex Dalton

A prestigious US research ship’s schedule is in disarray after geophysicists were forced to abandon two recent projects because of concerns that they would harm marine mammals.The Maurice Ewing – a 2,000-tonne vessel operated by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, New York state – has been docked in Mobile, Alabama, for the past two months after the cruises were blocked.

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Nature, July 2004

Nature 430, 291 (15 July 2004) | doi:10.1038/430291a; Published online 14 July 2004

Ocean noise could injure more than mammals
Michael Stocker1

Geologists should wait until more is known about the harm their work may do to fish.

Your News story “Push to protect whales leaves seafloor research high and dry” (Nature 428, 681; 200410.1038/428681a) reports that the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory survey of the 65-million-year-old Chicxulub meteorite crater, coordinated by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), was cancelled because of concerns that the airguns used could harm marine mammals.

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Sea Shepherd

February 2005

February 24, 2005

Whale Harassment Vessel Damages Reef off Mexico

On February 15, 2005, the U.S. National Science Foundation vessel Maurice Ewing struck a reef some 30 miles off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula. The grounding damaged 30 square meters of the reef – 10 meters of the damage was to coral.

The reef was clearly marked. The skipper of the Maurice Ewing was clearly negligent. The ship now faces heavy fines for running aground on a protected reef. “The fines will be based on the amount of damage done,” said Mexico’s Attorney General for Environmental Protection Jose Luis Luege. “I can’t say offhand what the fine will be, but it will be sizeable.”

The grounding of the Maurice Ewing is the most recent negative environmental activity of this U.S. National Science Foundation ship. Just prior to the reef damaging incident, the vessel was engaged in deploying seismic waves to search for traces of the asteroid impact that occurred 65 million years ago. This seismic activity represented a significant harassment to marine wildlife populations. Several strandings of cetaceans in the Caribbean area during this activity are believed to be a result of this research.

The Maurice Ewing is currently moored off the end of Progresso Pier and will stay there until whatever fine imposed is paid. Their work permit has also been suspended until the fine is paid and there is also a move underway in the Mexican Senate to permanently ban the Maurice Ewing from Mexican waters.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society applauds the government of Mexico for seizing the Maurice Ewing until a legal judgment determines what the fine will be and is paid.

Officials with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which operates the Maurice Ewing, have refused to comment on the incident.
Sea Shepherd is calling for the cessation of the research by the Maurice Ewing on the grounds that the crew conducting the research are incompetent. “Here we have a ship full of scientists arrogantly disregarding the welfare of living whales and dolphins in their efforts to seek the cause of the mass extinction of dinosaurs,” said Captain Paul Watson. “They claim they have the technology to detect evidence on the sea floor of an event 56 million years, yet they can’t even avoid a reef that is clearly identified on nautical charts.”

Please write to PROFEPA (Procuraduria Federal de Protección al Ambiente) and encourage the Mexican government to permanently confiscate this ship which has caused so much damage to marine habitat and wildlife:
Luis Fueyo Mac Donald
Director General de Inspección de los Recursos Marinos y Ecosistemas Costeros
Nivel KA1
Edificio AJUSCO
Carretera Picacho-Ajusco 200
Col. Jardines en la Montaña
Deleg. Tlalpan, C.P. 14210, México D.F.
Tel: +54-49-63-00 ext. 16323
Fax: 26152093


see online version for illustrations:

Judge Halts Baja Research After
Two Whale Deaths

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 30,
2002 (ENS) – A federal district court judge
ordered the National Science Foundation to stop
using high decibel airguns in the Gulf of
California yesterday, citing concern over possible
harm to whales that environmentalists believe the
research project has caused.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) had been
using the airguns to fire high energy acoustic
bursts at the sea floor to help map a fault in the
earth’s crust.

It is these high energy acoustic bursts that The
Center for Biological Diversity believes is the
likely cause of the death of two beaked whales,
which found stranded on September 25 at Isla San
Jose in the Gulf of California which separates
Mexico’s Baja Peninsula from mainland Mexico.

The whales were
discovered by National Marine Fisheries Service
scientists, who were on vacation at the time. After
examining the dead animals, the scientists
determined the activities of the NSF project were
probably responsible for their deaths.

After NSF refused its request to stop its work, the
Center filed suit in federal district court in San
Francisco on October 18 to halt the research
project, citing concern for marine wildlife and
accusing the National Science Foundation of not
having the correct environmental permits for its

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate James Larson found
that NSF was likely violating both the National

Environmental Policy Act and the Marine
Mammal Protection Act and has ordered
suspension of the use of the airguns.

“We’re delighted that the judge ordered a halt to
this dangerous and illegal project,” said Brendan
Cummings, an attorney with the Center for
Biological Diversity. “We had hoped that such a
renowned scientific institution as the NSF would
exercise some concern over the environmental
effects of its actions. Unfortunately, the NSF has
displayed the same disregard of environmental
laws that we have come to expect from this

The ruling has effectively terminated the NSF’s
research project, which began on September 18
and was scheduled to conclude by November 4.
The science foundation is unlikely to challenge
the decision, but it does not believe that it in any
way endangered marine wildlife nor disregarded
environmental laws in carrying out its research,
which was funded by a $1.6 million grant from
the National Science Foundation.

“We lost a huge amount of the science,” said NSF
spokesperson Curt Suplee. “It will be better than
nothing, but it wouldn’t be what they needed. Will
it justify the cost of the cruise? Probably not.”

The agency is convinced it did not need to
complete an environmental impact statement
under the National Environmental Policy Act
because it was operating in Mexican waters.
NEPA, however, is applicable to “major federal
actions,” and as a federally funded project using a
federal agency’s resources, this research fits the

“If any agency should know better, it is the NSF,”
Cummings said, noting that NSF was party to a
seminal case involving application of NEPA to
waters outside the U.S. The Marine Mammal
Protection Act applies, Cummings explained, for
several reasons, primarily, the use of a sound
source loud enough to potentially impact marine

In order to map and study the underwater plate
boundaries of the earth’s crust, scientists have to
bounce sound off the ocean floor. The R/V
Maurice-Ewing, a research vessel owned by the
National Science Foundation, is equipped with 20
airguns designed for this kind of project.
According Suplee, the vessel has been in use for
12 years and has mapped hundreds of thousands
of miles without incident.

“To the best of NSF’s knowledge, there has never
been a reported incident of injury or death to a
marine mammal,” Suplee said. “We still believe
that is the case. This is not new technology that
we started for the first time on this cruise to
torment marine wildlife.”

True, said Cummings, but NSF should have taken
into consideration the possibility that marine
mammals might have been affected. The decibel
levels of the array of airguns on the R/V
Maurice-Ewing can be louder than the
techonology used by the Navy, he added.

The technology used on the R/V Maurice Ewing
is not the same as what the U.S. Navy’s high
intensity, low frequency, active sonar, Suplee
added. But that type of sonar is not the only kind
that is damaging to whales. U.S. Naval operations
involving quieter, medium intensity sonar have
been directly linked to beaked whale strandings in
the Bahamas in 2000. NATO naval exercises were
linked to the deaths of a dozen whales in the
Canary Islands in September.

NSF also argues that the R/V Maurice-Ewing was,
at a minimum, 40 miles from where the whales
were found. In addition, NSF immediately halted
the project when it learned of the deaths, only
restarting a week later after what Suplee called
extensive efforts to ensure the research activities
were not the cause.

“We waited an entire week until the scientists
conducting this were all satisfied that we were not
involved in this unfortunate stranding,” Suplee
said. “We promised everyone in sight that if there
was even the remotest indication that this was
dangerous, that we’d shut it down. We’ve not only
been legal. Legal is easy. We’ve done everything
that is morally and ethically responsible in this.”

Cummings does not argue that NSF did not take
this seriously once the issue with the whales had
come up. The problem is that NSF failed to take
the possibility of damage to marine mammals into
consideration during the funding and planning of
the project.

“They did the research first and then once the
whale issue became a concern, were scrambling to
try to justify how it wasn’t impacting whales
rather than trying to do that first,” Cummings said.

“We’ve perhaps only scratched the surface, and
there may be other NSF funded projects out there
where they’ve ignored their obligations to carry
out environmental review before funding them or
carrying them out,” said Cummings. “Our goal is
not to stop this research, it is to make sure NSF
looks at the possible effects of the research before
carrying it out.”


and from 2005:

Activists Call Sound Wave Research Harmful
January 14, 2005

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Scientists working off the Yucatan Peninsula are preparing to use sound waves to search for information about an asteroid that may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

But environmental activists are trying to shut the project down, saying the technology could harm whales, sea turtles and several varieties of fish that provide a livelihood for thousands of Mexicans along the gulf coast.

Marine seismologists from the University of Texas Institute of Geophysics, the Geophysics Institute at Mexico’s Autonomous National University and Cambridge and London universities will use underwater seismic pulses to learn more about the Chicxulub (pronounced Sheek-shoo-LOOB) Crater, a depression measuring about 120 miles in diameter and centered just outside the port of Progreso, 190 miles west of Cancun.

The same technique is routinely used by scientific research vessels around the world to study earthquake faults, tsunami dangers and climate change, scientists say. It is used in Mexico by the state oil monopoly, Pemex, to search for new energy reserves.

But Rosario Sosa, president of the Yucatan-based civilian Association for the Rights of Animals and their Habitat, said the sound waves “damage the brain, or damage the cochlea of the ear, and disorient the animals so that they beach themselves or crash into boats.”

“They are no longer capable of looking for food using their sonar,” she said.
Scientists acknowledge there’s evidence that points to Navy sonar causing whales to beach themselves. But they say there’s no proof that seismic pulses have harmed marine animals, though much more research is needed to draw firm conclusions.

Thus far “there has not been any significant evidence that there is any harm being done to the marine animal population,” said Maya Tolstoy, a research scientist with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The observatory is in charge of operating the Maurice Ewing, the research vessel from which the scientists will work, about 50 miles offshore. The boat is owned by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Located half-onshore and half-offshore, the Chicxulub Crater is believed to have been carved by a comet or asteroid 65 million years ago, and occurred simultaneously with the mass extinction of species, including the dinosaur.

It is the largest and best-preserved “impact” crater on Earth, said Gail Christeson, a University of Texas marine seismologist involved in the project.

Researchers will send sound waves into the seabed via compressed-air guns to try to create the three-dimensional structure of the crater and learn the speed of the asteroid or comet, the angle at which it hit the Earth, and its effects on the environment.

The information could lead to knowledge of how to respond to possible future asteroid hits, Christeson said. She said the research also will help scientists to better understand the aquifer system of the Yucatan because the crater controls the water supply.

But Sosa says that after the Maurice Ewing conducted research in the waters between the Baja California peninsula and mainland Mexico in October 2002, two beached whales were found in the area with evidence of damage to their ears.

She also says activists have come across dead dolphins and turtles in the gulf coast state of Campeche, where Pemex uses seismic pulses to explore for oil. An additional concern is that the sound waves could threaten fish stocks – the livelihood of about 30,000 families along the Gulf coast.

Christeson says she has participated in at least four seismic cruises, “and we have never seen any effect on marine life.”

“It has been observed that the Navy sonar may have contributed to strandings of marine mammals,” said Christeson. “Our sounds source is different from navy sonar. The amplitude is less and we also fire intermittently, so we will put a short burst of sound in water every 20 seconds. The Navy sweeps through different frequencies.”

Mexico’s national Environment Department granted the Maurice Ewing permission to operate after the scientists agreed to take along independent specialists to monitor sea animals; allow flight and underwater acoustic monitoring; work only during the day when it is easier to notice the animals; and maintain a 3,800-yard safety radius around the ship. The government will conduct its own monitoring flights as well, officials said.

The scientists also have agreed to stop testing when the presence of marine mammals is detected, and will gradually raise the sound wave decibels to warn the animals and give them a chance to leave the area.

The activists, who claim to represent 100 national and international organizations, say that’s not good enough.

Benjamin White of the Washington-based non-governmental Animal Welfare Institute initially planned to tie himself with a rope to a fishermen’s boat that would ride alongside the Maurice Ewing to prevent it from conducting the tests.

Now faced with orders banning them from approaching the boat, the protesters are considering peaceful weekend demonstrations in front of Yucatan state offices.
“I’m here as long as it takes to shut them down,” White said.

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