JULY 2006

US Navy in sonar ban over whales

A federal judge in California has ordered the US Navy to temporarily stop using sonar equipment because it might harm whales and other sea mammals.

Environmentalists applied for the restraining order to cover a Pacific warfare exercise off Hawaii's coast.

The US Department of Defense had earlier exempted the navy from another law aimed at protecting sea mammals against the use of sonar equipment.

Government lawyers were reviewing the ruling, a naval spokesman said.

Some scientists believe the powerful sound waves emitted by underwater sonar equipment can harm sea mammals. Whales use sound waves to navigate, hunt and communicate

The navy is carrying out the anti-submarine warfare training exercise, known as Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) 2006, this week.

It involves 40 ships and six submarines, and the navy was planning to use a high-powered military sonar.

Different laws

On Friday, the US Department of Defense for the first time gave the navy a six-month exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to allow the use of its sonar equipment.

But California district judge Florence-Marie Cooper based her order on the National Environmental Policy Act, after campaign group the Natural Resources Defense Council challenged the military exercise.

She wrote that the plaintiffs "have shown a possibility that Rimpac 2006 will kill, injure, and disturb many marine species, including marine mammals, in waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands".

She said the navy should have considered holding the exercise in a less densely-populated marine habitat.

"Fortunately this country has more than one law against the needless infliction of harm to endangered whales and the environment," Joel Reynolds, lawyer for the National Resources Defense Council, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Judge Cooper's order is due to remain in effect until 18 July when the Navy will be allowed to argue against the injunction at a full court hearing.

Rimpac 2006 involves eight countries - Australia, Britain, Canada, Chile, Peru, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

The Wail of the Oceans


Millions of Americans will enjoy the ocean beaches this coming weekend. Tens of millions live within a few miles of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Yet if they could, these oceans would be crying out for help.

Just a few days ago, another foreboding peril was documented connecting global warming with the accelerating deterioration of coral reefs around the world a critical sanctuary for marine life.

Torrents of chemical and other poisonous runoffs into the oceans have led to "dead zones" where only some of the smallest marine organisms can survive. These areas are created in significant part by synthetic nitrogen fertilizers flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, for example, and nourishing massive algal blooms which then decay and cause oxygen-depleted "dead zones."

Corporate industrial agriculture is a major source of pollution of fisheries, such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Note the sequence. Huge animal feed operations for cattle, poultry and hogs produce animal wastes laden with agrichemicals and agridrug residues. They harm the ocean fisheries that then are consumed, at a diminishing rate, by men, women and children. Pregnant women are warned about eating swordfish routinely, for instance, due to mercury contamination.

As wild fish are reduced in number by overfishing and contamination, corporations erect fish farms and fill them with all kinds of drugs and pesticides to keep the domestic fish alive long enough in this artificial environment to be harvested. Salmon farms exemplify this problem.

Along comes David Helvarg, author of the engrossing Blue Frontier, with a beautiful paperback titled Fifty Ways to Save the Ocean that lays out your role in saving this great ecosystem of the Planet Earth.

These include, number 37, working to create wilderness parks under the sea (George W. Bush just decreed one off the Hawaiian Islands) that are off limits to exploitation, as well as supporting marine education in our schools, number 42.

Other "ways" are "what fish you should and shouldn't eat and which are endangered or could impact your health; how saving energy can help save the sea; proper diving, surfing, and tide pool etiquette," and joining in a "coastal cleanup."

Helvarg, founder of the citizen group, Blue Frontier took his "50 Ways" book on tour along one coastal community after another a few weeks ago. He received a great reception by the growing number of "seaweed activists" who know Helvarg because he either dove into the oceans with them or compiled their groups in his groundbreaking /Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide 2005-2006/ (Island Press), the Blue Movement Directory.

Few people understand how intricately critical are the oceans to life on the earth part of the Planet. Even fewer know how fragile a variety of conditions are in the Oceans which are daily being battered by man's effusions (e.g., plastic trash) and predations, (e.g., industrial overfishing).

One study concluded that the Big Fish in the oceans are down by 90%. They have been hunted or destroyed one way or another. The total ocean catch has been declining for several years.

Enjoy, enjoy the oceans, urges Helvarg. But do so with ecological wisdom, if only for the sake of your descendents. In his foreword to 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, Phillipe Cousteau writes "Each one of us has an earth echo, it defines our relationship with the planet and each other. . . . Begin creating an earth echo that you can be proud of."

Clarion call to save amphibians

Hundreds of amphibian species will become extinct unless a global action plan is put into practice very soon, conservationists warn.

Campaigners are forming an Amphibian Survival Alliance, to raise $400m and carry through a rescue strategy.

More than a third of all amphibian species are said to be in peril.

In a policy statement issued in the journal Science, researchers blame a number of factors including habitat loss, climate change and disease.

"We have a huge crisis but I'm confident we can produce some real results," said Simon Stuart, from Conservation International.

"The questions is: how many species will we lose? Are we going to lose hundreds before we can stabilise the situation or are we going to lose tens. Time is absolutely crucial, and to beat time we need human recourses and expertise, and finance," he told the BBC News website.

Stuart led the Global Amphibian Assessment which reported in 2004. It confirmed the scale of the long-suspected collapse in many populations.

There are almost 6,000 known amphibians, a category which includes frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians (legless amphibians).

Of these, nearly 2,000 are now judged to be at risk of extinction. At least nine species have slipped over the edge to oblivion since 1980, when the assessment said the most dramatic declines began.

The losses are caused by land-use change; commercial overexploitation; invasive species pushing out native amphibians; and the spread of a deadly fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.

The situation led to a summit last year being called in Washington DC, where a global action plan was agreed.

In this week's edition of the journal Science, leading amphibian conservationists call for the plan to be put into practice. An Amphibian Survival Alliance will co-ordinate the initiative.

In some instances where the spread of fungus is rampant, conservationists will have little choice but to take an "ark" approach", says Stuart.

"The only option we have is to take the most vulnerable species out of the wild and put them in captive holding stations and breed them. It's being done in Panama and Columbia. Some of the rarest species are being plucked out before the go," he explained.

An invasive frog species may be implicated in the spread of a fungus linked to global amphibian decline, research indicates.

Scientists writing in the journal Biology Letters found that non-native North American bullfrog populations routinely carry the chytrid fungus.

The deadly fungus has been implicated in many amphibian extinctions.

The scientists suggest the bullfrog may act as a vector because it can carry the fungus without developing disease.


The North American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) is the largest of the North American frogs, growing to 20cm (8in) in length and 0.5kg (1lb) in weight.

The bullfrog was initially introduced to countries around the world to be farmed for frog-legs, and was later imported as a pet or to decorate garden ponds. But it has since proven a scourge to many native frog species, either by competing with or even preying on them.