The new year didn't start off so well for conservation biologist Peter L. Tyack of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In January a judge stopped his tests of a new, high-frequency sonar system intended to act as a "whale finder," for fear that the bursts of sound might harm gray whales migrating close by.
The decision is the latest in a rash of court cases in which public concern for marine mammals has stopped acoustic research. Last October a judge halted seismic operations in the Gulf of California after whales became stranded nearby, and in November a court order limited the U.S. Navy's sonar tests, citing multiple suspicious strandings in years past. Yet the recent rulings have nothing to do with any new science; sound has been used to explore the seas for decades. Rather the national media have tuned in, and the subsequent legal activity is putting scientists in a catch-22: the laws need to be improved to protect marine life from harmful acoustic research, but more acoustic research is needed to determine what is harmful to marine life so that the laws can be improved.
This article was originally published with the title Sounding Off.