This is Science in the News in VOA Special English. I’m Sarah Long.
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The future of the Endangered Species Act in the United States ...
And the reason why researchers are exploring some old shipwrecks off the American coast.
In nineteen seventy-three the United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. President Richard Nixon signed the measure into law in December of that year.
The Endangered Species Act is designed to protect rare animals and plants. It requires the government to take steps to save threatened wildlife. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are two agencies that enforce this law.
These agencies decide which animals and plants to list as either threatened or endangered. They decide how much of an area these species need to live safely. And they decide how much human activity is acceptable in those areas.
In some cases, the two agencies must work with a third, the Environmental Protection Agency. One of the jobs of the E.P.A. is to approve new pesticides. Under the law, the agency has had to first make sure that these agricultural poisons would not harm endangered wildlife. The E.P.A. has been required to consult with the other two agencies to seek their opinion.
But a new policy by the Bush administration says these consultations are no longer necessary. The new policy permits the E.P.A. to decide independently if new pesticides are likely to harm endangered species.
More than sixty members of the House of Representatives have expressed opposition to the change. They say public health and the survival of endangered wildlife could be threatened. They say harmful chemicals could enter the environment without enough supervision or study.
The administration, however, says the new rules will speed up the approval process for agricultural chemicals. Officials say the old process was too complex. They say it was impossible to consider every likely interaction between hundreds of chemicals and more than one thousand species. That is how many are currently listed as threatened or endangered. As a result, administration officials say few consultations have taken place in the past ten years.
Last year, a judge ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the Endangered Species Act when it failed to seek such an opinion. The case involves an action brought in federal court by a coalition of environmental and fishing groups in Washington state.
The issue is the possible threat from a group of pesticides to Pacific salmon protected by the act. The judge said the E.P.A.'s own reports showed serious risks from the chemicals to the survival of the fish. This past January, the judge temporarily restricted the use of almost forty pesticides near salmon waterways.
This case and others led to action in Congress. Last month the House Committee on Resources passed two bills. One bill would change the process by which land is set aside for endangered species. The other would change the process by which animals and plants are listed as threatened or endangered. Similar legislation has been proposed in the Senate.
Supporters say the proposed changes would modernize and improve the Endangered Species Act. Opponents say the changes would weaken thirty-year-old protections needed for endangered animals and plants to survive.
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The scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission has blamed military sonar for harm to whales.
Sonar technology sends sound waves through water to find objects. Naval forces search for submarines. But the power of sonar has increased since World War Two. Today, the sound may be as loud as an airplane engine.
Scientists say the noise can cause whales to suffer bleeding in the brain and the tissue near their ear bones. The sound may also interfere with communication among whales and their ability to guide themselves through the water. Scientists say whales may rise to the surface so quickly, gas bubbles form in their blood.
The scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission noted some recent incidents that appeared to involve sonar. One was the movement toward shore of two hundred melon-headed whales in Hawaii. This took place during American and Japanese naval training in the area. One whale died.
Also, three beaked whales died off the Canary Islands of Spain. NATO had military exercises off the nearby coast of Morocco at the time. Scientists reported damage to the navigation systems and organs in the whales.
Energy companies also use sonar, to search for oil and gas. The whaling commission said this threatens the survival of the last of the gray whales near the Pacific coast of Russia.
The United States Marine Mammal Commission has been studying the effects of sonar and other underwater noise on sea animals. Congress is expected to receive a report next year.
For now, the Navy continues with plans to develop a sonar testing area off the eastern United States. The Navy says it needs the area to train sailors to find the quieter submarines now used by other nations. Environmental groups say the training area would needlessly harm ocean life.
These groups may take legal action to restrict the use of middle-frequency sonar. The Navy has already agreed to limit its use of low-frequency sonar. Such waves can travel huge distances. A group called the Natural Resources Defense Council brought action against the Navy. The Navy agreed to limit the use of low-frequency sonar to an area of the Pacific off East Asia.
Scientists are exploring seven ships that sank during World War Two off the southern United States. The wrecks lie in waters that are between eighty-five and almost two thousand meters deep. They are not far from each other in the Gulf of Mexico. Over more than sixty years, the wrecks may have become reefs where underwater animals and plants live.
Man-made objects have been used to create such conditions closer to the surface. For example, old structures for oil and gas drilling at sea have been sunk in shallow water. They are thought to help increase fish production.
But during the current exploration, the scientists want to learn if man-made reefs can also improve deep-water environments. At the same time, they want to learn more about the history of the ships. The exploration is to end later this month.
The study team includes government agencies and a company from Louisiana called C and C Technologies. Researchers are using an unpiloted diving vehicle that can make video recordings and do other jobs in deep water.
One of the wrecks is the German submarine known as U-one-sixty-six. The submarine lies about seventy-two kilometers off the Mississippi River Delta. Two oil companies identified it in two thousand one. During World War Two, it was among about twenty-four German submarines active in the Gulf of Mexico. They sank fifty-six ships.
At one point, in nineteen-forty-two, they destroyed three ships. These carried oil, food and other supplies for America’s European allies. Then U-one-sixty-six began to chase a ship named the Robert E. Lee. The Lee carried passengers in addition to supplies. The German submarine fired a missile and sank the ship. Twenty-five people were killed.
For years, American officials thought the submarine escaped for a short time after that attack. Now they know that a ship guarding the Robert E. Lee sank the German U-boat when the Lee went down. U-one-sixty-six had fifty-two crew members.
The U-boat and the other wrecks are now being explored as candidates for protection on the National Register of Historic Places.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Jill Moss, Nancy Steinbach, and Jerilyn Watson. Caty Weaver was our producer. This is Sarah Long.
And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science, in Special English, on the Voice of America.