This post was contributed by ESA Science Policy Analyst Piper Corp.
Next year, the US Navy will enlist as many as 20 bottle-nosed dolphins and California sea lions to provide around-the-clock surveillance of Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington State. The new recruits have been trained through the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP) to locate and apprehend swimmers and divers in restricted waters-dolphins investigate suspicious activity and notify military handlers, while sea lions actually cuff the legs of intruders, using a tether to drag them into custody.
None of this is particularly new-the Navy program has been around since the 1960s, training charismatic marine mammals to rescue divers, locate underwater mines, and monitor activity around bases and submarines. The effort peaked in the 80s, when Congress partially repealed the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, allowing the Navy to capture wild dolphins for NMMP use. But funding levels dropped after the Cold War ended, and many of the animals were retired to marine parks or Navy facilities. The program has only recently regained interest as part of post-9/11 efforts to improve national security.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, have delayed or blocked several new NMMP projects, calling for environmental impact statements to address the effects of relocating marine mammals to colder waters and contaminating surrounding areas with animal waste. The Navy’s recently released report states that off-duty dolphins and sea lions will reside in pens that contain waste and maintain temperatures of at least 52 degrees F.
Navy officials have stressed the importance of the program, particularly since existing sonar surveillance technologies are not on par with dolphin echolocation. There’s no word yet on what wayward swimmers and divers think of the new patrollers.