Environment: Scientists say global standards for ocean noise pollution are needed to protect marine life

Naval training exercises off the coast of California could pose a threat to endangered marine mammals.
Ocean noise pollution hinders communication among whales, and likely impairs their ability to navigate and feed.

Increase in seismic blasting raises concerns

Staff Report

FRISCO — Scientists say new global regulations on ocean noise pollution are needed to protect marine life.

Governments and industries around the world are expanding the use of high-decibel seismic surveys to explore the ocean bottom for resources, potentially putting whales and other animals at risk.

To reduce the risks, the experts recommended that ocean noise be recognized globally as a pollutant — something the European Union has already done — and managed through a revision to the existing International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.

That would enable the establishment of consistent, scientifically based standards and monitoring programs for ocean noise levels, according to a new paper written by experts from eight universities and environmental organizations.

“In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in the use of seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration and research, and for establishing national resource claims on ever-larger geographic scales. Surveys are now occurring in, or proposed for, many previously unexploited regions including parts of the Arctic Ocean and off the U.S. Atlantic coast,” said Douglas P. Nowacek, an expert on marine ecology and bioacoustics at Duke University.

Firms and agencies conducting the surveys would benefit from these new measures, the experts assert, because instead of having to navigate an assortment of rules that vary by nation or region, they would have a uniform set of standards to follow.

“The time has come for industries, governments, scientists and environmental organizations to work together to set practical guidelines to minimize the risks,” Nowacek said.

Nowacek and his colleagues published their recommendations in a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Seismic survey impulses are among the loudest noises humans put into the oceans, and in some cases can be detected more than 2,500 miles away. The increase in ocean noise they cause can mask sounds whales and other species rely on to communicate, navigate, find food or avoid predators. Long-term exposure to the noise can also lead to chronic stress and disorientation in animals, and auditory damage.

Systematic monitoring of seismic exploration would help assess the cumulative long-term impacts on marine life and identify areas where the activities should be prohibited or temporarily limited to protect important habitats or vulnerable populations.

The paper recommends cutting down on the redundant seismic surveys in the same areas by different companies, Collecting data simultaneously for several clients would significantly reduce the number of surveys.

At the same time, there needs to be a push to perfect and use alternate seismic survey technologies to reduce the acoustic footprint. Some alternatives are close to being ready for industrial scale use, including a e marine vibrator, which conducts surveys using a steady pulse of low-pressure sound waves over a longer period instead of the disruptive blasts.

Nowacek said there’s an urgent need to implement these new protective measures and scale up new technologies. As sea ice in the Arctic Ocean rapidly diminishes, bordering nations are eyeing new underwater oil and gas exploration and research prospects there. Increased activity is also proposed for lower latitudes.

“Survey permits are now being considered for oil and gas exploration along the U.S. East Coast that would allow surveys to occur as close as three miles from the coast,” he said. “However, the current draft of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year plan for East Coast oil and gas exploration allows oil and gas lease areas to be no closer than 50 miles offshore. That’s a pretty big difference.”While gathering some data from beyond a lease area is necessary, allowing these industries to survey to within three miles of the coast is excessive,” he concluded.

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