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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 9:31 pm | Fair 50º


Karen Telleen-Lawton: Whales and Navy’s War Games

“I know we've come a long way, We're changing day to day, But tell me, where do the children play?”Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), Tea for the Tillerman.

What happens when the U.S. Navy and 22 of its favorite friendly countries congregate in the Pacific Ocean? For the navies, it was an opportunity to practice war games over 2.7 million nautical square miles of ocean, an area larger than the continental United States. For the dolphins and whales in the area last summer, it was more like real torture than war games.

Planned sonar and explosives activities for the event represented a 1,100 percent increase in incidents of harm to the echolocation communication systems of whales and dolphins.

The war games, spread out across the Pacific, were the Rim of the Pacific Exercise event for naval ships, submarines and aircraft. RIMPAC is, according to the Navy’s website, the world's largest international maritime warfare exercise. RIMPAC is held during June and July of even-numbered years, hosted by the Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and coordinated with the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard and the Hawaii National Guard.

Likely the exercises were successful, but in the wake of last year’s event, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of environmental groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to fulfill its obligations toward marine mammals. Just last month, a federal court judge ruled the government’s training exercises did not safeguard the NMFS’ legal obligation.

In its defense, the Navy pointed out that it had set aside some space for the humpback whales: a block of sea 3.1 miles long along Hawaii’s coast. It contended that any additional restrictions would hamper operational ability.

The ruling supporting marine mammals, if it holds, actually stands to benefit the military as well. Its Marine Mammal Program has long studied the military use of marine mammals such as bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Animals were used in the Vietnam and Iraq wars to perform tasks such as ship and harbor protection, mine detection and clearance, and equipment recovery. The program is slated to shut down in 2017, replaced by robotic mine-hunters, but the dolphins have served honorably and presumably without Navy pension for generations.

With dolphins-as-bomb-carriers being retired, attention is swiveling to understanding these highly intelligent and social creatures for their own sakes, and the Earth’s. The May issue of National Geographic describes researchers’ efforts to understand how dolphins think. In 30 years of research, Denise Herzing listens and records vocalizations, laying the foundation she hopes will one day result in a shared vocabulary. Teri Turner Bolton teaches increasingly complex “tricks” that include the command to “innovate” — performing any of the dozen or so maneuvers in their repertoire, but not repeating anything they’ve done in a session.

What can these types of research expect to yield for humankind? Like any basic research, the end goal is knowledge. But all practical knowledge depends on basic research as the building blocks.

All humankind depends on the building blocks of nature. And thus, the federal ruling is a win for everyone. The answer to “Where do the dolphins play?” may be again someday, “Dolphins play all over.”

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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