Marine Noise Population Threatens Whale Populations: A Few International Solutions

Photo via: Flickr // Christopher Michel

Article by Alix Vadot

Though the negative impacts of environmental pollution on people’s physical and mental health are well-known, noise pollution receives slightly less attention. Yet, the US recognizes this type of pollution – with regulations such as the U.S. Noise Control Act, for example. Beyond pollution that directly affects people, pollution can also impact the environment and other species. Images of bird carcasses filled with plastic debris or videos of turtles getting caught in plastic six-pack rings are emblematic of this impact.

Marine noise pollution is a type of pollution that demands our attention. With the rise of globalization, the ocean is filled with noise from military engines, fracking operations, shipping containers, underwater construction, and seismic surveys. Because of water’s immense sound-carrying capacity, the underwater world is a source of pain for many marine species, particularly those who rely on sound for survival.

Unlike most sources of marine noise, shipping noise is constant and intense, but perhaps often overlooked. The sound produced by ship propellers and smaller vessels has increased alarmingly over time, particularly in parts of the world that are highly populated, and where demand or exportation of shipped goods is high.

Noise produced by offshore construction is also on the rise, with increased construction of large wind farms as well as other structures, often requiring underwater use of explosives. The noise can travel up to 10km and affects marine mammals’ behavior in a significant way. Seismic surveys, a method by which the ocean is mapped through pulses of intense noise (ironically mimicking some species’ navigating systems, as explained in the award-winning documentary Sonic Sea), is also common for oil, gas and other under-sea mineral exploration. If within a dangerous distance of marine life, displacement will occur and can last up to several weeks, forcing animals to move away from the environment they have made their home.

Whereas regulation for air pollution, noise pollution, and “traditional” water pollution have steadily been implemented, there is a lack in both national and international regulations for marine noise pollution. In fact, there is currently no mandatory shipping regulation with regards to noise pollution globally. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has issued voluntary guidelines for mitigating noise coming from commercial ships and made progress towards recognizing “quieting technologies.”

Similar to many instruments of international law, however, these guidelines can only be effective with adequate implementation. Some researchers suggest that ship classification societies, green certification societies, and port environmental compliance programs could help in this regard. National regulations, however, are also crucial.

In the EU, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD; 2008/56/EC) has implemented what it calls a Good Environmental Status (GES), which must be met to operate and can be determined, in part, through monitoring and perhaps limiting anthropogenic (man-made) noise in European waters.

The Directive focuses on intense sounds of short duration as well as low-frequency ambient noise associated primarily with shipping. Both types of noise have had devastating impacts on marine life, including the injuring or killing of whales that either develop brain hemorrhages or flee to the surface of the water or beaches to escape the sound.

Similar to this EU Directive, a regional Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention) requires the application of Best Available Technology (BAT) and Best Environmental Practice (BEP) to prevent and eliminate marine noise pollution. Both initiatives are examples of the strict regulations that should be implemented on a worldwide basis, as well as locally by national governments.

Some local initiatives around the world provide a framework for what site-specific regulation might look like. In British Columbia, Canada, Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced in October of 2017 that vessels would no longer be allowed to approach a distance closer than 200 meters of southern resident killer whales (100 meters more than the previous distance). Killer whales, a particularly threatened species, relies on a quiet environment to locate and hunt their prey, as well as to communicate among themselves. The distance of 200 meters was defined in response to a high concentration of whale-watching shops but is unlikely to be sufficient for much louder ships such as shipping containers, sonar vessels, or fracking operations that produce a sound of a much higher caliber.

In Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park, located in the Quebec region of Canada, the regulatory distance has been established at 400 meters from belugas and blue whales, to prevent disruption of the animals’ feeding activities. Washington State has implemented a similar law establishing boats should stay at least 180 meters away from killer whales.

If more countries around the world adopt similar directives, and organizations work towards effective implementation of international agreements on marine noise pollution, the legal landscape will become increasingly welcoming for our marine neighbors. Beyond legal intervention, shifts in demand for shipped goods and quieting technologies will also serve to mitigate this invisible issue.

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