Cetacean Society International
Whales Alive! - Vol. XIV No. 1 - January 2005
Noise in the Oceans
Noise in the oceans is the focus of the updated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/acoustics/. It may not include all of the items below yet, but it should.
In October 2004, the European Parliament called for a ban in European waters of military sonar equipment, including during NATO operations, and asked its 25 member states to stop deploying high-intensity active naval sonar until a global assessment of their cumulative environmental impact on marine mammals, fish and other marine life has been completed. The Resolution called for the development of alternative technologies, more monitoring and reporting of mass strandings and other anomalies. It also asked the European Commission to conduct a study of the potential impact on the marine environment of the deployment of high-intensity active naval sonars, and to provide an assessment of the impact of current practices in European waters. A Multinational Task Force was called for, to develop international agreements regulating noise levels in the world's oceans, with a view to regulating and limiting the adverse impact of anthropogenic sonars on marine mammals and fish.
Manmade ocean noise is a dangerous pollutant which can disturb, injure and even kill whales and other marine species was the Resolution agreed to at the November meeting of ACCOBAMS (the United Nations Environment Programme's Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area). 16 countries were represented at the meeting, held in Majorca, Spain. The ACCOBAMS Resolution urges Parties to: Avoid any use of damaging manmade noise in habitat of vulnerable species and in areas where marine mammals or endangered species may be concentrated; Intensify national and international research on the issue; Develop alternative technologies and require the use of best available control technologies and other mitigation measures in order to reduce adverse impacts; and Consult with any professions conducting activities known to produce underwater sound that could harm cetaceans, including military authorities, recommending, "extreme caution be exercised in the ACCOBAMS area." The scientific committee of the agreement has also been charged with developing a common set of guidelines on these activities by 2007.
Spain announced a moratorium on the military use of active sonar in waters around the Canary Islands just a week before ACCOBAMS, in response to sonar-related mass whale mortalities. NATO had previously restricted some sonar operations in the region.
A seismic experiment off Mexico's Yucatan coast was due to start 3 January, conducted by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University (LDEO) using the research vessel Maurice Ewing. CSI and other NGOs joined the Animal Welfare Institute-led protest statement against this experiment, previously denied by Mexican authorities, because the likely acoustical impact on marine organisms far exceeded the scientific value of the research, and the entire Mexican EEZ has been declared a sanctuary for great whales.
The experiment would study the Chicxulub Crater, site of the meteor impact that affected the globe millions of years ago, with an array of 20 seismic air guns firing at a peak volume of 255 decibels every 20 seconds during daylight hours, for a month and a half, tracking over 3,000 kilometers of marine habitat. The NMFS and SEMARNAT approved permits included the probability of impacts on over 11,000 cetaceans, although no one really knows the cumulative or long term effect of such an experiment.
The experiment ignores the recent and strong cautionary statements and resolutions concerning the threat loud ocean noise poses to cetaceans, from the European Parliament, IWC, ACCOBAMS and the IUCN (World Conservation Union). Seismic noise is a form of pollution. Governments are being called upon formally to apply the precautionary principle in assessing the impacts of noise generated by commercial, military, and industrial activities, and being entreated to avoid the use of powerful noise sources in habitat of vulnerable species and in areas where marine mammals or endangered species may be concentrated.
Seismic surveys seem to be everywhere today, powered by a need for energy resources to fuel a world economy. Global warming may have contributed to the melting of pack ice near the North Pole this summer, but the industry in general saw it as an opportunity to get ships into previously ice-locked regions to search for oil and gas. The din must have been incredible, reverberating back into the sea by the surface ice.
The British Royal Navy, with stiff upper lip, remains determined to make its new £160 million low frequency Sonar 2087 system operational, claiming it will greatly enhance the fleet's ability to detect enemy submarines without injuring sea mammals. The 2087 installation was displayed in December, aboard Plymouth's HMS Westminster, the first of six systems expected to be in service next year. The 2087 system transmits at a lower power level than the US Navy's LFA, but shares the controversy, especially after Defence Minister Lord Bach in September admitted that extensive tests had shown that it has the potential to be harmful to marine mammals, specifically causing permanent hearing damage to some cetaceans that stayed within 500 meters of the transmitting system for 30 minutes. Why would a whale stay there? Why do your children endure heavy metal concerts? Neither one realizes what's happening to them until later.
Manmade sounds displace and alter the behavior of some cetaceans was the conclusion of an experiment published as "The influence of acoustic emissions for underwater data transmission on the behaviour of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) in a floating pen", R.A. Kastelein et al. / Marine Environmental Research 59 (2005) 287_307 305. The sounds were variants of acoustic communications used by industry, particularly in Europe. The experiment showed that very loud communication signals transmitted by the proposed ACME system could risk causing temporary or permanent hearing threshold shifts in any nearby porpoise. The results may not apply to all other small cetaceans, but no one knows.