Environment & Science

Feds to pursue new approach to protect whales from noise

A fin whale swims off the coast of Los Angeles. These whales can get up to 70-feet long and weigh up to 150,000 pounds, making it the second largest animal on earth.
A fin whale swims off the coast of Los Angeles. These whales can get up to 70-feet long and weigh up to 150,000 pounds, making it the second largest animal on earth.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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The ocean is getting noisier. That’s bad news for whales, dolphins and other marine mammals that rely on their hearing for navigation, communication, foraging for food and just about everything else.

In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced a new approach for fighting underwater noise.

The Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap aims to address the effects of chronic noise exposure on whales, dolphins, fish and other marine life. Currently, NOAA focuses on shielding individual animals from immediate exposure to loud noises – things like sonar and air guns used in seismic oil and gas exploration. 

Under provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, for example, NOAA requires trained observers to stand lookout for whales or other marine mammals during seismic surveying and halt the firing of air guns when one is spotted nearby.

But critics say the existing approach isn’t ideal. Sound travels much better through water than it does through air, and ocean animals can hear the the ping of sonar and the boom of seismic surveying equipment from hundreds of miles away.

“Even if you can spot that whale, it does nothing about a pollutant that is as far-traveling as sound,” said Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal protection project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “NOAA’s approach is like saying you fixed air pollution by putting a fence around a smokestack.”

NOAA's new strategy seeks to reduce noise pollution throughout entire marine ecosystems, but its options are limited.

Richard Merrick, NOAA Fisheries’ chief science advisor and director of scientific programs, said the agency is doing a good job of mitigating some acute noise impacts. But he pointed out NOAA has no regulatory control over commercial shipping, one of the most pervasive sources of underwater noise.

While that’s unlikely to change in the new strategy, NOAA hopes to focus more on understanding the relationship between long-term exposure to underwater noise and increased stress and collisions with ships. And the agency will take an ecosystem-level approach to the problem, considering the cumulative impact of noise in an animal’s habitat.

NRDC's Jasny is tentatively optimistic about the new strategy, but would like to see more specifics. “This is potentially a paradigm shift in the way the U.S. government manages this important issue,” he said.

Merrick said NOAA expects to release an implementation plan in the next year or so. First, it’s giving the public a chance to comment on its new strategy for the next month.