San Diego

The deaths of beaked whales have been blamed on naval exercises involving sonar. Credit: REUTERS/C. GUEVARA

As the US Navy plans to expand its testing of sonar in the oceans, the creation of an independent research programme to find out how the noise may affect marine mammals seems doomed. Evidence is also emerging that the Navy may have been pressuring scientists to downplay links between sonar and damage to marine life.

After two years of meetings costing nearly $1 million, an advisory committee of scientific, military and industry leaders convened by the US Marine Mammal Commission (MMC) has collapsed. Instead of producing a consensus-based report on how best to study the effects of sonar on marine mammals, the 28 members will, next week, submit individual recommendations. The MMC will then report to US Congress in the next few months, but without agreement, it is unlikely that any research will be funded.

At the beginning of the decade, environmental groups took the Navy to court over its use of low-frequency sonar. The Navy lost early court rounds, but after going to Congress, won exemptions from environmental laws. In 2003, Congress created the MMC advisory panel, in which warring parties were brought together to hammer out a plan for future research and management. It was hoped that agreed research questions would be pursued by an independent programme, estimated to cost about $25 million over five years.

Such research is badly needed. Little is known about how marine mammals are affected by sonar — although whales or dolphins have repeatedly been found beached after military sonar tests. The strongest evidence for its destructive effects comes from British researchers, who reported that military sonar off the Canary Islands was linked to decompression deaths of beaked whales (P. D. Jepson et al. Nature 425, 575–576; 2003). A subsequent study found cavities in sperm whale skeletons, supporting the idea that whales suffer from decompression sickness (M. J. Moore and G. A. Early Science 306, 2215; 2004).

MMC executive director David Cottingham says the committee couldn't agree because of “the high degree of uncertainty over the impact of various noises on marine mammals”. But interviews with observers and panel members suggest that the Navy, as well as other groups that use sonar, including geophysical researchers and the oil and gas industry, blocked a consensus. A Navy spokesman, however, denies this; along with representatives from the other groups, Navy officials insist that they are interested in good science.

What lies beneath

Mammalogists on the panel disagree. “This process has been a travesty of fiscal responsibility, scientific integrity, and environmental stewardship,” Lindy Weilgart of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, wrote to the MMC as the committee disintegrated last September.

“The science of ocean sound is highly politicized,” adds Hal Whitehead, a marine mammalogist at Dalhousie and Weilgart's husband. “I see the breakdown of the committee as an indication that the Navy and others didn't want Congress to have a clear picture of what the risks are.”

Either way, the promised research is unlikely to happen. And scientists question whether the current US programme, funded mainly by the Navy, will tackle questions fairly and openly. Late last year, a lawsuit forced the release of e-mails in which military officials discussed their attempts to pressurize a researcher funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to withhold comments on the damaging effects of sonar. The 2001 e-mails detail how Robert Gisiner, who manages the ONR's mammal research funding programme, engaged in “a pretty scorching phone call” with Robert Schusterman, a marine biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Schusterman had filed comments for an environmental report saying that a Navy sonar test could be harmful to marine mammals. Gisiner denies any impropriety and says he was simply “talking to an old friend”.

And last week, a report by Teri Rowles, co-ordinator of the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) stranding programme, was made public in another court case; the National Resources Defense Council is aiming to force the NMFS to release information about the potential impact of a new training range planned off North Carolina. In an initial version of the report, Rowles reported that the death of at least one whale stranded on the North Caro-lina coast last year could have been caused by sonar. But in the final report released by the NMFS, the link to sonar had been removed.

Critics see such incidents as evidence of the conflict of interest inherent in the current Navy programme. Whitehead and Weilgart wrote in October that the funding system should be changed, “to safeguard the credibility of the field and protect us all from conflicts of interest” (see Mar. Mamm. Sci. 21, 779–781; 2005).

Meanwhile, the public has until the end of January to comment on the Navy's plans for a new training range.