The ocean is becoming increasingly loud. Oil and gas exploration, shipping, and military activities bombard marine creatures with noise. Whales, turtles, fish, and invertebrates including oysters and crabs, use sound to survive. As their homes become clouded with this acoustic smog, these animals may struggle to hear or make the noises they need to find mates, keep track of young, and find food.
On June 1, 2016, NOAA released a draft of its Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap. The Strategy “is designed to support the implementation of an agency-wide strategy for addressing ocean noise over the next 10 years.” The Strategy is a sea change in how NOAA addresses sound. It recognizes that ocean noise and its impacts on the health of marine ecosystems should be necessary considerations in the government’s decision-making process – an evolution from NOAA’s previous, program-specific approach. The Strategy highlights the effects of noise-induced stress on animal health, reproduction, and the density and distribution of whales and notes that the cumulative impact of noise on marine life must be considered.
Such a holistic approach to managing our nation’s oceans is needed if we are to ensure their future health. For example, the remaining 500 or fewer North Atlantic right whales face threats from a number of fronts. They were almost driven to extinction by whaling, and now alarming new research shows that their numbers may be decreasing once again. Entanglement in fishing gear is a greater threat than previously thought, with long-term effects on survival and reproduction. In a letter sent to President Obama in April, scientists voice fear that damage caused by seismic airgun noise could be the final straw that tips the species toward extinction.
But how can we know when that final straw is added? How can we measure this accumulation of many stressors and find a species’ breaking point? Scientists are tackling this question right now. Biologists recently published case studies on resident killer whales and humpback whales, which identified the maximum levels of disturbance that those populations could withstand. Lead author Rob Williams says, “NOAA’s Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap is exactly the direction we need to move toward a broader consideration of noise as a persistent feature in the ocean environment. Taking an integrated approach to ocean noise is necessary to ensure that we do not pass a tipping point that could cause irreversible harm to habitats, species and ecosystems.”
On World Ocean’s Day, June 10, 2016, I represented Oceana during a Capitol Hill screening and panel discussion of Sonic Sea, a documentary created by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Discovery, and Imaginary Forces, about ocean noise. The event generated interest to support and develop legislation to ban oil, gas, and methane hydrate exploration, including seismic airgun blasting, in the Atlantic, from New England to Florida.
Oceana, which has worked for years to protect marine life in an increasingly noisy ocean, applauds NOAA for recognizing that noise is a critical component of ocean management. Oceana supports the general principles and recommendations outlined by NOAA’s Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap. Although the Strategy will not be finalized immediately, Oceana urges NOAA to apply the Strategy’s recommendations now. NOAA will decide soon whether or not to permit seismic airgun blasting for oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic. Unless that permitting is fully denied, seismic airgun blasting could be the last straw for North Atlantic right whales and other marine animals, which depend on noise for survival. We urge NOAA to deny all seismic airgun permits for oil and gas exploration and development in the Atlantic.