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A Plan To Reduce Ocean Noise Pollution For Marine Mammals

Natural Resources Defense Council
Natural Resources Defense Council

The federal government has introduced a new plan to manage noise pollution in our waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration outlined a 10-year strategy, called the Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap, that aims to reduce impacts on marine mammals.

Think the ocean’s a quiet place? Drop a microphone into the middle of the Pacific and you might be surprised at what you hear.

That symphony of sounds plays a critical role when it comes to survival under the sea. Whales and dolphins use sound to navigate, find food, and communicate with each other.

Flickr / Jasperdo
Credit Flickr / Jasperdo
A Matson ship unloading cargo at a Honolulu harbor. The commercial shipping industry is one of the leading contributors to ocean noise pollution.
The roar of a cruise ship drowning out the calls of endangered orcas.

“When you consider the underwater acoustic environment, you need to keep in mind that sounds travels incredibly well underwater,” explained Jason Gedamke, who runs NOAA’s ocean acoustics program. He’s also the lead author of the recently released Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap. Its goal is to manage the noise humans are putting into the sea.

He says, while long term research is limited, there have been studies showing that noise pollution from ships, sonar, and military exercises have increased over time. “In just a fraction of time on an evolutionary scale, we’ve really altered the underwater acoustic environment,” Gedamke said. “We’ve altered underwater acoustic soundscapes.”

Marine ecologist Leila Hatch says the largest contributor to noise pollution is the shipping industry. "The average contribution from background sources, like commercial ships, can dominate the spectra," said Hatch.

“All of this noise is having a sweeping effect on life in the sea,” said Michael Jasny, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project.

Jansey says noise pollution has caused everything from hearing loss, disruption in breeding patterns, even death. But he thinks developing a strategy on how to deal with this is a positive step for NOAA.

“This potentially marks a sea change in the way that the government approaches what we all know by now to be a serious environmental issue,” Jansey said. “The question really is about implementation.”

And creating a budget to achieve that.

“And until that happens, this is just paper.”

NOAA says it received more than 85,000 public comments on the Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap. 

The final version of NOAA's Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap:

NOAA Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.
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