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Stop U.S. Navy's War on Whales

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Remember the popular Star Trek IV movie, The Voyage Home? Two humpback whales, George and Gracie, save the earth from a devastating alien probe by simply defusing the attack--with whale song. In that far-sighted film, humans have driven whales to extinction; in the 21st century, oceans are barren of humpbacks, except for George and Gracie, captive in a San Francisco zoo. Captain Kirk and his crew must time-travel backwards, rescue the two whales, and transport them into the 23rd century to save our blue planet from the powerful alien probe.

That movie is now coming true. After decades of lethal target practice against whales and dolphins by the U.S. Navy's sonar programs, our marine life is so threatened that they may not survive the navy's request for renewed permits for their bombing and sonar exercises from northern California to the Canadian border. By their own estimation, the Navy's sonar exercises in 2014-2018 may "harm marine mammals 2.8 million times over five years."

Add to that the navy's admission that there may be 2 million incidents of "temporary hearing loss," and 2,000 whales could be permanently deafened. National Marine Fisheries Service has already approved the Navy's proposed 2-014-2018 sonar exercises, but the public comment period is still open until March 25. And now it is time for us to speak up for our future. Do we really want an empty ocean and deafened whales whose songs can no longer save them--or us?

Navy sonar is a thousand cuts to an already devastated ocean: Bleaching coral reefs, overfishing, hypoxic Dead Zones, climate change with monster storms and rising seas--these are the real dangers that threaten us, much more than any terrorist or enemy country. A 2011 scientific report on the sate of our oceans warns that if we don't curb the degradation of our seas and limit our marine distress, we'll suffer "mass extinctions unlike anything human history has ever seen."

Like the film, this is the 21st century reality of our oceans. Yet the U.S. Navy is still stuck in a 20th century Cold-War mentality that focuses on our oceans only as a battle zone, not a primal life support for us all. The Navy hasn't figured out that what they really need to do is help protect our world's marine life and defend us from a dying ocean.

To do this, the military must reconsider its role and look beyond warfare to survival through conservation of our seas. The navy's massive sonar budget could be transformed from killing whales to constructive conservation. Instead of blasting sonar along our coasts, the navy could build mangrove forests to protect our shorelines from flooding. Instead of deafening whales and the ocean habitat they help balance, the Navy could spend its bloated sonar budget on creating marine reserves where fish and coral reefs have been proven to thrive.

When Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, announced cutbacks in military spending, many of us who have studied whales for decades hoped he might at last listen to public outcry and marine scientists who protest their lethal sonar. We're getting rid of defunct and outdated airplanes and even aircraft carriers. Why not fewer submarines and much more limited sonar tests? Why not move their sonar training ranges westward out beyond the continental shelf; or time their trainings when they do not coincide with fall and spring gray whale migrations or orca gatherings here in the Northwest May-October? These are simple safeguards and practical limitations that the Navy has yet to even consider.

Back in 2000, while researching my National Geographic book, SIGHTINGS: The Gray Whales' Mysterious Journey, and my Sierra Club novel, Animal Heart, I met many marine scientists who were deeply troubled by the U.S. Navy's sonar.

"The military only regards the oceans as a big acoustic battleground map--not a living ecosystem that needs protection itself," the scientists told me. "The Navy wants to ensonify the seas just like the now defunct Star Wars plans for space.

As military sonar has increased its territory and the "take" or kill grows with each target practice--from the Bahamas, to Greece, to Hawaii and our East and West Coasts--many scientists are courageously speaking out.

Long-time orca researcher, Ken Balcomb, calls military sonar an "acoustic holocaust" and Nova Scotian whale researcher, Lindy Weilgart," writes in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed: "I cannot imagine why we would subject marine inhabitants, the majority of which are highly sensitive to sound, to yet another source of pollution."

To limit military sonar and make it off-limits in biologically sensitive marine areas, EarthJustice and NRDC, among other environmental groups, have filed suits."The Fisheries Service basically issued a blank check to the Navy, allowing it to kill scores of marine mammals--including endangered whales--and critically imperiled turtles, with no meaningful limits to ensure these species will not be pushed closer to extinction," said David Henkin of Earthjustice.

In The Voyage Home, the sane and sensible Dr. Spock echoes these scientists' questions and warnings. In Spock's mind-meld with George and Gracie, the humpbacks inform him that are not happy with how humans have treated other species. Captain Kirk adds that it is ironic that as humans drove whales into extinction in the 21st century, we were also destroying our own future.

"Star Trek IV" should be required viewing for the U.S. Navy. In the 21st century, our survival, like in that Star Trek movie, may depend more on a healthy ocean and marine life, than military might. When our military is needed to fight climate change much more than other enemies; when our children's survival depends upon our foresight and marine conservation--we can demand that the Department of Defense slash the budget for military sonar.

The U.S Navy must finally adapt to changing seas and a dying ocean. We must make sure the navy stops killing and finally starts saving our seas. Because as the Star Trekkers of the 23rd century realized, by saving the whales, we will also save humans.

Still time for public comment:

For more on navy sonar and its threats to our oceans see "Killing With Sound: What Happens When the Whales Stop Singing?"