[MARMAM] Ocean Noise 2008 science, policy recap from Acoustic Ecology Institute

Jim Cummings cummings at acousticecology.org
Thu Feb 19 14:07:13 PST 2009

The Acoustic Ecology Institute¹s annual recap of ocean noise developments is
now available as a pdf download at the AEI website:

AEI¹s coverage of news and new research is now distilled into an RSS or
email feed, available from http://AEInews.org

Below is a summary of the contents of the Ocean Noise 2008 overview:

During 2008, four key pathways to future engagement with ocean noise issues
clarified. Each of these over-arching developments are fleshed out in more
detail in the full report.

Behavioral impacts clearly replaced strandings and deaths as the key issue
for marine mammals encountering human noise.  Several studies released
during 2008 all suggest that whales of many species may stop or reduce their
feeding when moderate to loud human sounds enter their habitat, and this
particular impact is likely to become a central focus of future research and
regulatory consideration.

The legal tussles over mid-frequency and low-frequency active sonars
continued, and the Supreme Court decision does not put an end to the
controversy.  The Navy crossed an important threshold, completing full
Environmental Impact Statements for their sonar training procedures for the
first time; the lack of sufficient NEPA analysis was the root of most of the
legal challenges.  The plans they are putting forward to govern sonar
training off most of the US coastline continue to rely on safety measures
that Federal Courts have found wanting, though it appears that challenges to
their proposals are more likely to focus on avoiding biologically important
areas than increasing the safety zones that are designed to avoid injury.
All parties seem to be accepting that gross injury is rare to the point of
being difficult to use as a lever to shift the balance of interests with the
Navy¹s national security imperative, but NGOs, many field researchers, and
agency staff are all looking more closely at the behavioral impacts that
take place at much longer ranges (up to several or even tens of kilometers).
The next round of Navy sonar conflicts will center on how willing the Navy
is to consider these subtler impacts, and whether NMFS or the courts will
impose broader territorial restrictions on sonar training to protect areas
where whales may be more susceptible to repeated disruption by sonar

Shipping noise is moving very quickly to the forefront of international
concerns about rising ocean noise.  This year the US, with strong German
support, initiated a two-year process at the International Maritime
Organization to come up with ship quieting recommendations. Also, the
unusual sensitivity of harbor porpoises to boat noise has become clearer.

The scientific community appears to be entering a new phase in its
engagement with ocean noise, a natural result of the increasing emphasis on
these issues over the past five years.  The European Science Foundation, the
US Marine Mammal Commission, and a National Marine Fisheries Service-led
group have all recently published important reports that attempt to provide
frameworks within which future research priorities can be clearly
considered.  These frameworks promise to provide much-needed big-picture
coherence to what has been largely a scattershot approach to increasing our
understanding of ocean noise.  An independent and striking development this
year was the emergence of more scientists speaking out forcefully about
their concerns about ocean noise; these scientists have, at times, directly
critiqued the more modest and diligently objective conclusions of the larger
institutional reports just noted, and are representative of a subset of
scientists who are more willing to push for extra precaution in our
noise-making until we better understand what the effects are.

Among the most interesting things to watch for in 2009:

The Navy and NRDC will be ³test-driving² their recent agreement on
mid-frequency active sonar, which set up a 4-month period of dialogue after
any major MFAS rules are issued, in an effort to avoid more litigation. With
final EISs and NMFS-issued permits issued for the three most important sonar
training ranges released in December and January, the clock is ticking, and
there is plenty to discuss: NRDC has expressed vehement concerns about the
large numbers of animals who will hear and change their behavior in response
to sonar training.

In Alaska, Shell Oil will be challenging a recent ruling by the 9th Circuit
Court of Appeals that revoked their permits to conduct seismic surveys,
using a line of argument very similar to that which prevailed for the Navy
before the Supreme Court in its sonar case, and which was already voiced by
the dissenting judge on the 3-judge panel that ruled that the Minerals
Management Service had not done a thorough enough environmental review:
Shell will argue that the court has exceeded its field of expertise, and in
so doing, ignored the expertise of the federal regulators.

How will the Obama administration approach new offshore oil exploration and
development on the US Outer Continental Shelf? The MMS completed two years
of preliminary work just as the Bush administration left office, culminating
in a draft proposal to open 22 new lease areas, and to conduct an EIS for
widespread seismic surveys as decades-old data is updated. Secretary
Salazar¹s first move was to extend the comment period on these plans to six
months; hearing have already begun in the House to consider next steps for
OCS development.

The possibility that noise causes stress responses in marine life is under
increasing scrutiny, and could fundamentally alter the equation that is
central to ocean noise regulation: if and how noise may contribute to
long-term, population-level impacts. The Navy and NRDC are working together
on a research program that includes study of stress in marine mammals, and
the Okeanos Institute is following up on its symposium that addressed stress
impacts with a new meeting in 2009 that will address synergistic impacts of
multiple marine stressors, including noise. This is the big question: does
noise induce stress which then makes animals significantly more susceptible
to other physiological stressors, such as toxins or food shortages? (There
are indications that these sorts of synergistic impacts do occur in
terrestrial species.)

Jim Cummings
Executive Director, Acoustic Ecology Institute

    Needle clusters shirring in the wind‹listen close, the sound gets better
                    ---Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End

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