GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 20, 2012

Report: Sonar fish study may affect whales

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The sonar-based technology that has shown promise in improving fish stock assessment — now on a fast track for $1.3 million in state funding that could help solve the mystery of disappearing cod — has also been found to affect the behavior and singing of whales.

Humpback whales "sang less" and possibly swam away from the pings of the Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing technology — or OAWRS — system during a 2006 test to find and quantify schools of pelagic fish in the nearby Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, according to a newly published research article in PLoS One, for Public Library of Science One.

The study also found that the whales seemed to be reacting to the sonar sounds at a far greater distance from the source — roughly 120 miles.

That "anthropogenic" (man-made) sound affects aquatic animals, especially whales which communicate or sing across vast expanses of water is a heavily researched, disputed and litigated problem, according to the study, and U.S. Navy sonar has been linked to strandings, with one case going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, the authors — Denise Risch, Peter J. Corkeron, William T. Ellison and Sofie M. Van Parijs — limited their report to the finding that whales stopped singing when hearing the sonar sounds that somewhat resembled their singing. Risch is at Integrated Statistics, Woods Hole, a private company and government contractor; Ellison is from Marine Acoustics Inc, of Middletown, R.I., and Corkeron and Van Parijs are based at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Science Center at Woods Hole.

"The suitability of Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing technology for long-term monitoring of marine ecosystems should be considered, bearing in mind its possible effects on non-target species, in particular protected species," the authors wrote.

The article was received by PLoS One last July and published last week — days before the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee brought to the floor a $131 million supplemental budget that included $1.3 million for a sonar assessment of groundfish, specifically Gulf of Maine cod.

The Senate on Thursday gave initial approval to the budget, and the $1.3 million for sonar fish assessment.

State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat, has been a leading promoter of the OAWRS technology as an improvement on the traditional approach used by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service which involves a combination of trawl survey results and landings' data filtered for size (age) of the stock in question.

The entire fishing community — at all three levels of government and across various segments of stakeholders — have expressed dire concerns about a 2011 assessment of the inshore Gulf of Maine stock of the pre-eminent fish in the New England groundfishery.

Contradicting a benchmark assessment from 2008 which showed the cod recovering rapidly from overfishing, the recent assessment, now undergoing final peer review and pending publication next Wednesday, could result in draconian cuts in cod catch limits that many say will threaten the industry.

The rosy picture drawn in 2008 has been replaced by dreary figures that suggest that, if fishing was halted immediately, the stock could not be brought to sustainability by 2014, the rebuilding deadline set by NOAA, acting under mandates written into the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

In a crisis atmosphere, the Obama administration has organized a "cross-agency" effort to find a solution to the cod crisis, which has the potential to pit hard-line environmental elements, veterans of the 2008 Obama coalition, against the fishing communities of the New England coastline and their elected allies.

In a release Tuesday, NOAA Fisheries listed the upcoming venues for discussion of the problem leading up to the Feb. 1 session of the regional management council meeting in Portsmouth, N.H. There, the council "will discuss a course of action for Gulf of Maine and possibly request that NOAA Fisheries take emergency action for the 2012 fishing year." For information on the hearings, please visit http://www.nero.noaa.gov/nero/hotnews/gomcod/

Any application of sonar technology in inshore waters would face possible lawsuits and requirements for federal environmental impact studies. Moreover, there is no certainly that the OAWRS technology can be as good at defining shoals of groundfish that include the pivotal cod along with haddock, hake and flounders as it is with pelagics — the mid-water swimming herring, on which OAWRS reputation is built.

Richard Gaines can be reached a 978-283-7000 x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.