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AEI Ocean Noise 2008 science, policy, legal recap

To: Bioacoustics list <>
Subject: AEI Ocean Noise 2008 science, policy, legal recap
From: Jim Cummings <>
Date: Thu, 19 Feb 2009 13:33:36 -0700
The Acoustic Ecology Institute’s annual recap of ocean noise developments is now available as a pdf download at the AEI website:

AEI’s coverage of news and new research is now distilled into an RSS or email feed, available from

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 Navy’s 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 transmissions.

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 “test-driving” 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 Salazar’s 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

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