Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XIII No. 4 - October 2004

Noise Update

By William Rossiter

Human noise in the oceans has been part of CSI's focus for over a decade, and we're pleased to say, we're only part of a still-growing wave of organizations, scientists, politicians and even nations actively working to define the problems and seek solutions. The burden of proving that noise is a significant issue is gone; the general problem is freely acknowledged by everyone except some of the worst noisemakers that are denying reality as long as possible. Massive resources far beyond our abilities have been committed to fight the noisemakers, and we're pleased to have stepped back to a support role.

As the noise issue grows, some trends are becoming clear. First, science continues to document circumstances where human noise has affected animals or habitats; the evidence just keeps pouring in. Second, official and political interest is growing, although few initiatives have reached the magnitude of the EU actions below. Third, the Marine Mammal Commission initiative to bring together the spectrum of people and interests concerned in the issue has been productive. But fourth, the noisemakers in general are adapting their strategies, not to find more benign ways to get the job done, but to outflank or overcome obstacles to business as usual. To them it's still all about money. To the Navy, mission first. And last, quieter technologies are being employed, particularly with shipping, but as normal cost effective improvements, not specifically to lessen impacts.

The European Parliament (EP) consideration of a moratorium on the development of high intensity naval sonars is a fine example of the trend. The EP's Environment Committee in late September adopted a draft resolution calling for a global assessment of sonars' cumulative environmental impacts on whales, dolphins, fish and other marine life. It's scheduled for EP plenary discussion in October. For further details see: http://www.europarl.eu.int/meetdocs/2004_2009/documents/RE/540/540103/540103en.pdf.

The draft also calls upon the European Union and its member States to use NATO and other international organizations to develop alternative technologies to high intensity active sonars, adopt geographic restrictions on their use in sensitive marine habitats, and initiate a Multinational Task Force to develop international agreements regulating noise levels in the world's oceans.

The resolution considered several mass mortalities of cetaceans associated with the use of high intensity mid-frequency active sonar in coastal environments, accepted evidence that some sonars pose a significant threat to marine mammals, fish and other ocean wildlife, and considered the potential negative impact of these sonars on commercial fishing and the already depleted fish stocks throughout the world's oceans.

The resolution cited Articles 204-206 of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, that require States to assess the potential effects of their activities on the marine environment and communicate the results of such assessments, and Article 194 that requires that "States shall take all measures that are necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source". It affirms the EU's commitment to halt biodiversity loss by the year 2010 in the EU and globally under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Plan of Implementation adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

CSI wishes to thank Dr. Marsha Green of the Ocean Mammal Institute, for her initiative and leadership in presenting a petition to the European Parliament, co-signed by many organizations including CSI, that formed the basis of the resolution now being considered.

"Marine Animals and Human Noise", the national lecture series sponsored by the NOAA Fisheries Acoustics Program, has two more public programs: 11 November at Hubbs-Sea World Research Inst., San Diego, CA, and 13 November at Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, CA.

The Advisory Committee on Acoustic Impacts on Marine Mammals will next meet in New Orleans 30 November-2 December. The meeting will be open to the public.

An international workshop on anthropogenic noise and marine mammals was being convened by the Marine Mammal Commission and Joint Nature Conservation Committee as this Whales Alive! went to press. The 28-30 September workshop was held in London, England, continuing the Commission's "Policy on Sound and Marine Mammals" discussions among invited experts. The eventual purpose is to provide recommendations to Congress in 2005 for future legislation related to ocean noise and marine mammals. http://mmc.gov/sound/internationalwrkshp/internationalwrkshp.html is the web site where the Commission will post all submitted papers and other material.

Experts from at least 22 countries had an opportunity to share their views with the core group that has met three times so far in the United States. The Commission has made a considerable effort to ensure that experts representing all sides of the noise debate are present in a facilitated exchange. CSI is not one of the five environmental advocates participating in the core group, but CSI's interests are well represented. Unlike previous meetings we couldn't observe either, as the London workshop was not open to the public because of limited space.

The opportunities and goals from all these activities are very encouraging, and we have strong hopes that marine mammals will suffer less from human noise as a result. But when will the next noise related stranding occur? Without a lot of changes that seem very slow coming it's just a matter of time.

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