Scientists link whales' deaths to seismic tests

Environmentalists want researchers trying to map rift to suspend work

October 17, 2002|By Scott Gold | Scott Gold,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After the deaths of two beaked whales near the southern tip of Baja California, environmental advocates are demanding that federally funded researchers attempting to map an underwater rift in the Earth's crust with powerful air guns suspend their work.

Five vacationing marine scientists who had chartered a sailboat in the Gulf of California late last month happened on the two stranded whales on the shore of Isla San Jose.

Local fishermen told the group that the whales were alive when they beached themselves Sept. 24, but they were dead by the time the group found them, said one of the five scientists, Jay Barlow, who heads the National Marine Fisheries Service's coastal marine mammal research in California.

The group spotted a large vessel offshore and contacted its captain by radio to ask him to call a marine biologist they knew in nearby La Paz to begin an investigation.

According to Barlow, the captain said he was unable to help because he was doing seismic testing. "The scientists immediately put the two together: dead beaked whales at the same time that this survey is going forward," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with Los Angeles-based Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization.

After halting seismic tests for several days after the discovery of the whales, the team on the research vessel resumed work this week, saying there was no proof of a link between the project and the whale deaths.

Environmental advocates say the seismic project is breaking federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act - which bans behavior that carries even the potential of disrupting marine mammals - and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the government to analyze in advance any program that could have a significant ecological impact.

The 239-foot seismic testing vessel Maurice Ewing is operated by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which is based in New York. The scientists on board are funded by a $1.6 million grant from the federal government's National Science Foundation, said James Yoder, director of the NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences.

Lamont-Doherty Director Graham Michael Purdy could not be reached for comment.

According to the NSF, the seismic research is meant to provide the first detailed map of a long-developing crack in the Earth's crust - believed to be the same fissure system that runs north through California, incorporates the San Andreas fault and contributes to the potential for earthquakes on the West Coast.

The project is using a synchronized system of 20 powerful air guns that can register 220 decibels - more powerful even than the sonar blamed in the recent deaths of whales elsewhere, Reynolds said.

The group that found the whales had hoped to do a necropsy, but the whales were too decomposed.

"I don't see how it can possibly be resolved given the information that is available in this case," Yoder said. "To establish scientific proof of a link is impossible given that there was no necropsy."

Scott Gold is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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