A federal court has ordered the National Science Foundation (NSF) to cut short a research cruise off Mexico that was using sound to map the sea floor, backing conservationists who claim that the noise killed several whales (ScienceNOW, 22 October). The restraining order, handed down yesterday, prematurely ends a $1.6 million international expedition and has renewed debate over the impact of noise on marine mammals.
The controversy began 25 September, when vacationing whale biologists sailing in Mexico's Gulf of California discovered two dead Cuvier's beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris). The group soon learned that the Maurice Ewing, a research vessel owned by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, was nearby, using sound pulses created by air guns to map the margins of the continental plate. Human-created noise, including military sonar, has been linked to other strandings of beaked whales, a poorly understood group of species that live in deep water (ScienceNOW, 7 January). And although NSF said that there was no clear link in this case, it did halt the 6-week cruise for days and then took steps to avoid whales, including shortening planned mapping tracks and reducing air gun noise levels.
Such measures, however, weren't enough for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group based in Idyllwild, California. Last week, the group asked the court to halt the cruise, successfully arguing that the ship doesn't have required U.S. environmental permits, even though it is sailing in Mexican waters. NSF disagrees with that legal interpretation, but won't appeal the decision and has ordered the Ewing home to California. The research cruise was supposed to continue until 4 November.
The controversy isn't over. Researchers continue to debate how, exactly, sound energy may harm beaked whales. And environmentalists have another lawsuit pending against the U.S. Navy, challenging a planned sonar system. Government lawyers, meanwhile, must sort out the complicated question of which U.S. environmental laws apply to government research vessels operating in foreign waters. Says NSF spokesperson Curt Supplee: "This is a nightmare of legal ambiguity that will have to be hammered out by the courts."