By Margaret Cooney
Whales face more challenges than ever before; commercial whaling, ship strikes, and entanglement, are the common culprits, and as our oceans become increasingly crowded, and therefore increasingly noisier, ocean noise pollution is joining those ranks.
Ocean noise pollution, in its three main forms of ship noise, oil and gas exploration, and military sonar, has been known to drive whales and other marine mammals from their breeding and feeding grounds, and to deafen or even kill.
For people, even relatively low-level noise can cause psychological and physical stress, adversely affecting blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac output. But people can usually move away from noise; for marine mammals, escape is often impossible.
In recent years there has been a great deal of research on the harmful impacts of underwater noise on marine mammals. However, there is still a huge amount of uncertainty. New research continues to reveal effects even from noise sources that had not been considered harmful in the past. Like people, animals may suffer a great deal due to noise but without showing any immediate effects.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recently been reviewing all the research on the impacts of noise on marine mammal hearing in order to try and specify levels at which harmful effects are likely to occur.
This is an important process because it will guide regulators who have to make decisions on whether to allow loud sounds to be generated underwater, such as military sonar for navy testing and training activities or seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration.
IFAW, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and a number of other environmental groups, recently submitted comments on the draft criteria proposed by NOAA. Setting such criteria is a complex, technical process that has to take into account the considerable uncertainty and lack of information.
Our recommendations list a number of technical issues that we believe need to be accounted for in order to make the criteria adequately precautionary to protect animals from direct injuries caused by underwater noise.
NRDC, IFAW, and the aforementioned coalition of NGOs worked together with members of Congress, to highlight the importance of using the precautionary principle when NOAA is drafting its final guidelines. The technical complexity and difficulties in determining which sounds at what levels will cause serious harm are not an excuse to inadequately address the problem.
The solution is actually very simple and achievable--make less noise.
IFAW’s efforts have been focused on reducing noise at the source through our work with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on shipping noise, through our collaborations with others in the NGO community and with industry on mitigating the sound effects of offshore energy development, and through working with champions in the government to make sure strong regulations are in place for keeping the volume down on ocean noise activities, such as military sonar.
We will be closely monitoring NOAA’s progress as they continue to draft these acoustic guidelines, helping to make sure that they use the best available science, and when there is none available, to err on the side of precaution. With the right technology and will power we can make our oceans quieter, thereby relieving whales and other marine life from the cacophony of sounds that pervade their environment.