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Death and Denial

On June 9, 2008, at least 60 dolphins stranded along the coast of Cornwall, England, in what was by far the largest common dolphin mortality ever seen in UK waters.  For hours, rescuers tried to lead them back to sea – often unsuccessfully, as some of the animals were panicked and others just milled about in tight circles, resistant to saving.  The forensic investigation that followed ultimately involved 24 experts from 5 countries and multiple government agencies.  Their verdict has just come in: the most probable cause was naval exercises.

For several days before the strandings, the Royal Navy ran a large, multinational event, which included the U.S. Navy and involved active sonar and other disruptive activities, off the Cornish coast.  That event, the investigators concluded, was closely correlated in space and time with the dolphins entering Falmouth Bay and eventually coming ashore.  All other possible causes – disease, algal blooms, malnourishment – were eliminated.

The implication of naval exercises in a mass stranding will come as no surprise to those who have followed this issue in the States.  Nor will the Royal Navy’s perfunctory denial, which, as reported in the Daily Mail, seems awfully similar to what we have heard over the years from the U.S. Navy.  

In the case of mass strandings, what navy officials always seem to demand after the fact is some definitive, minute-by-minute record of the victims’ movements before beaching, as though it were possible to stick a tag on every whale and dolphin in the sea.  Until biologists can provide that infeasible level of proof, the navy refuses responsibility.  But really the Cornwall case is simple: a gun was fired, there were bodies, and no one else was in the room.  

It’s long past time for both navies to stop denying the obvious and do something meaningful to reduce harm, like putting especially vulnerable habitat off limits to dangerous training.  In this country – where our Navy has requested permission to harm marine mammals 30 million times over the next five years without improving its mitigation plan – perhaps even more than in Cornwall, that may be something we have to fight for.

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Michael Jasny

Michael Jasny is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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