Researchers: No proof that sonar bad for sea life

PUHI — Researchers admit that underwater sonar testing off Kaua’i’s north shore could be a problem for whales and other marine life.

But until there’s proof, officials assume there are no harmful effects, a small gathering of citizens were told at a public meeting on the issue Wednesday at Kaua’i Community College.

Agencies involved in studying the use of underwater acoustic sound to measure ocean temperatures and its effect on marine mammals and other marine species hosted the meeting to explain plans for extending the project another five years. A second meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Kilauea Neighborhood Center.

North Pacific Acoustic Laboratory wants to continue sonar tests that began in the mid-1990s. The second phase of the project, funded by the Office of Naval Research, would be conducted by researchers from the University of San Diego and University of Washington.

Opponents of the study claim the underwater sound transmissions are detrimental to sea creatures, including the endangered humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles.

“There may be effects we don’t know about,” admitted Jim Mercer, a University of Washington scientist who was a principal investigator in the first phase of the project. “We’re saying there don’t appear to be long-term effects that we can detect.” Joe Mobley, a University of Hawai’i researcher involved in the marine mammals aspect of the study, said he’s not “100 percent sure that nothing (harmful) is going on. I’m not claiming we haven’t missed something.” Nevertheless, the behavior of humpbacks during the earlier sonar transmissions indicated they weren’t bothered by the noise. Peter Worcester, an investigator in the new project, said the sound is only slightly different from what the whales are accustomed to from natural sources.

But skeptics at Wednesday’s meeting wondered how officials can be sure that whales and other marine species aren’t harmed by the sonar. Several citizens also criticized officials for not making a draft environmental impact statement on the project’s second phase more readily available for public review.

The document is available at public libraries throughout Kaua’i and via http://npal.ucsd.edu A device for sending the sonar signals sets in a tripod on the ocean floor. Sophisticated electronic equipment receives the sound, which officials propose sending in six 20-minute intervals (one every four hours) on every fourth day. That schedule would be followed for five years.

Worcester noted the intensity of the signal would increase gradually, so that sea mammals who don’t like it can swim away without being subjected to its highest level.

Ray Chuan, who plans to be among North Shore residents attending this Saturday’s meeting in Kilauea, said earlier Wednesday that he and other opponents of the project feel they “can’t win against the big guys.” Compared to meetings in 1994-95 that drew crowds of 300, “there may be a degree of apathy now. Some people have been worn out by the issue,” he said.

But legal challenges of the project, based on environmental concerns, are still a possibility, Chuan said. If the project isn’t continued off Kaua’i’s shoreline, alternatives include moving the research to Midway. Officials said that location has less value from a research standpoint than Kaua’i, which is the first choice.

Pat Jenkins can be reached at 245-3681.

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