Classified military operations coincided with fish kill

This investigative story was posted on the Hawaii Independent.  What was DARPA doing in the area off of Ni’ihau?  Why won’t they tell the public?

Classified military operations coincided with fish kill

Posted March 17th, 2009 in Niihau by Joan Conrow

A Navy contractor was engaged in classified operations around Ni‘ihau in mid-January when a major fish kill and dead humpback whale calf were reported on the island’s shores.

Chris Swenson, coastal program administrator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said crews involved with a project to eradicate rats on Lehua had to leave the islet “four or five times” between Jan. 3 and 21 to accommodate classified military operations on the north end of Ni’ihau.

Lehua is about a half-mile from Ni’ihau, where thousands of fish began washing up on Jan. 17 and a dead humpback whale calf was seen on Jan. 21. Another humpback whale calf washed up between Kekaha and Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on Feb. 9, and a mass kill of squid and lanternfish was discovered at Kauai’s Kalapaki Bay on Jan. 20. Scientists do not know if the events are related.

Swenson said that a representative of DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which develops and tests new technology for the Department of Defense – told him that Fish and Wildlife crews could not be on Lehua at night between Jan. 3 and mid-February. The same DARPA official told him that Ni‘ihau residents also had been told to stay off the north part of their island during that time.

PMRF spokesman Tom Clements previously refused to confirm whether military activities had been conducted on the range, saying only: “If an anomaly occurred at that time that people are trying to connect to our activities, we’re saying they were no different than the activities that have been done on the range over the past 40 years.”

According to the DARPA website, “Over the years, DARPA has responded to issues of national importance with new ideas and technology that have changed the way wars are fought and even changed the way we live. Since the very beginning, DARPA has been the place for people with ideas too crazy, too far out and too risky for most research organizations. DARPA is an organization willing to take a risk on an idea long before it is proven.”

Swenson said he objected to the DARPA request because “it’s a big hassle and a lot of extra risk” to repeatedly helicopter his crew off Lehua, where they were monitoring the Jan. 6 and 13 aerial applications of the rodenticide diphacinone.

“We told them we’d stay in our tents and not look out, but they weren’t buying it,” Swenson said. “They said they were doing a lot with aircraft, aerial stuff, and we had to be off Lehua at night during that time.”

During the day, Swenson said, “we saw a lot of boat activity. A lot of torpedo chasers were out cruising around.”

The January 2009 undersea warfare training exercise (USWEX), which in previous years has involved the use of sonar, also was under way during that same period, beginning at 4 p.m. Jan. 15 and ending at noon Jan. 18.

The whale deaths, and the fact that many of the beached Ni‘ihau fish had distended swim bladders, has prompted some to question whether sonar or under water explosions may have played a role.

Swenson said that sonar testing and underwater explosions “would correlate with the distended swim bladders.” As for the lanternfish and squid kills, “those are both deep water species, so something happened deep down quickly that nailed a bunch of them.”

In regard to the Ni‘ihau fish kill, Swenson said, “My gut suspicion is something got spilled during Naval exercises up there. They had the Port Royal grounding and sewage spill they [the Navy] weren’t going to tell us about.”

Swenson was referring to a guided missile cruiser that ran aground near the Honolulu International Airport’s reef runway on Feb. 5. The navy discharged about 7,000 gallons of untreated wastewater from the ship without first informing the state Department of Health.

Thierry Work, the federal wildlife biologist who conducted a necropsy on one fish collected from the Ni‘ihau fish kill, said he did not want to add to speculation about the cause. He found “acute inflammation and swelling of the gills,” which he said can be caused by a number of factors, including chemical irritants and natural toxins.

When asked why many of the fish had distended swim bladders, Work replied: “I’m stumped.” That condition occurs when a fish “loses the ability to compensate buoyancy for whatever reason,” he said, and is typically associated with hooking a fish and quickly bringing it up from deeper waters.

However, the Ni‘ihau fish kill involved shallow water reef fish – primarily humuhumu and nenue – and the specimen Work examined showed no sign of being hooked. He said detonating dynamite in the water also could cause the condition, “but then you would think all sorts of fish would be affected, not just triggerfish.”

“Each fish has different swim bladder characteristics, so even if there were many species in an area that was blasted, only a few species would have extended swim bladders,” said Dr. Carl J. Berg, a Kauai research scientist with deep-sea research experience. “Deep water fish and squid come up closer to the surface to feed at night, then go back down into the dark depths during the day, so they could have gotten nailed at night when they were nearer the surface. My guess is by underwater explosions or sonar.”

Work was unaware of the Jan. 20 lanternfish kill at Kalapaki, but said that on Jan. 26 state conservation officers gave him two lanternfish to necropsy after a number of that species washed ashore at Maui’s Puunoa Beach. He has not yet conducted tissue studies on the samples.

Although some have speculated that the rodenticide diphacinone may be the cause of the Ni‘ihau fish and whale deaths, both Swenson and Don Heacock, the state aquatic biologist for Kauai, discounted that possibility.

“There’s no way it [diphacinone] could get into a baby whale,” Heacock said. “They’re only drinking milk and the mamas don’t feed here.”

Tissue tests done on opihi and 18 live fish caught off Lehua following the rodenticide application showed no sign of diphacinone, Swenson said. Results are still pending for aama crab and seawater.

Monitoring work done on Lehua found “no detectable movement” of the pellets on land, Swenson said.

Swenson said the Health Department is testing fish from the Ni‘ihau kill for diphacinone and pesticides, but has not yet released the results.

Updated 4:54 pm with quote from Carl J. Berg.


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