I recently returned from the 2016 Ecoacoustics Congress, the 2nd meeting of the new International Society of Ecoacoustics, held this year at Michigan State University in Lansing. It was a very informative gathering of fascinating researchers from around the world; several traveled from Australia, a couple from Taiwan, many from Europe, and some from South America. I’ll add more here soon about this rapidly-advancing field, but for now, I wanted to quickly post a PDF version of my presentation:
In a second letter to the Obama administration, 28 top ocean noise and whale researchers have raised serious concerns about planned seismic surveys along the east coast of the U.S. The scientists cite several recent studies that shed light ways that the long term health and reproductive rates of right whales have been affected by temporary stresses, and suggest that the planned seismic program could push this extremely endangered species over the edge. With only 500 individuals remaining, the loss of each individual creates a significant impact on long term population viability. According to the letter,
Notably, according to analysis by the New England Aquarium, even a small decline of only ten percent in right whale health can impair reproduction or eliminate it entirely. A newly published study shows that a population-wide deterioration in North Atlantic right whale health from 1998 to 2000 was correlated with a drastic drop in calving rates, further indicating that factors influencing health can be responsible for suppressing reproduction.
With previous studies showing noise causing lasting stress in right whales, and that whales that have been through an entanglement experience with fishing gear show lasting health effects and reduced reproduction, the researchers conclude:
In light of the desperate level of endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale and the serious consequences of entanglement, it is critical that other major stressors are minimized or removed to ensure the recovery and long-term survival of this species. The additional stress of widespread seismic airgun surveys may well represent a tipping point for the survival of this endangered whale, contributing significantly to a decline towards extinction.
A year ago, 75 scientists wrote to the Obama administration to urge them to reject plans for seismic surveys and oil and gas development along the Atlantic seaboard. In March of this year, plans to offer drilling leases for the five-year period 2017-2021 were abandoned. A future administration may re-open the area for later five-year planning periods, and the oil and gas industry wants to conduct new surveys in the meantime. Currently, four companies have applied to the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management (BOEM) for permits to conduct surveys in the Atlantic (see maps above and below). This new letter from 28 of the same researchers who wrote last year asks the administration to follow up its announcement to keep the Atlantic closed to drilling, by now also withdrawing the 2014 decision to open the area to new surveys, in the light of the new research that is not included in the previous environmental impact statement—or at the very least, to refrain from issuing any permits until after NOAA’s planned 2017 right whale status review, which may confirm whether recent slowdowns in the species’ population growth have continued.
The NRDC elaborates on the expertise of these researchers:
The statement is signed by some 28 marine biologists with particular expertise on the right whale, from such institutions as Cornell, Duke, the New England Aquarium, Wildlife Conservation Society (the conservation arm of the Bronx Zoo), UNCW, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For right whales, it doesn’t get much more authoritative than this.
The map at the top of this post highlights designated right whale Essential Habitat (red) and Seasonal Management Areas (blue cross-hatches). Note that the areas largely overlap; this duplication of effort and noise is among the concerns expressed by regional and national ocean advocacy organizations; oil and gas exploration companies routinely duplicate each others’ surveys, with everyone’s data being held as proprietary information. The larger map below shows designated Essential Habitat for a wide range of Atlantic species. One of the proposed survey areas is well offshore, fifty or more miles from the key right whale habitat, while the other three come right to the edge of the designated habits, or even overlap with them. Seismic survey sounds can routinely extend for tens of miles from the survey vessels (and up to 1500 miles in deep offshore waters), so concerns about increased stress—especially in the nursery areas along the southwest coast—apply to all the proposed survey areas, if they take place when whales are present.
For more from the researchers involved, see this press release that includes several quotes, and for more on the maps, produced by Oceana, see this article from the Coastal Review and this page on Oceana’s website.
Ship traffic through Canada’s Northwest Passage has more than doubled since 2004 and tripled since the 1980s, mostly thanks to much longer open-water seasons as the Arctic continues to warm. Today’s 300-350 voyages per year is expected to double again as both mining and tourism rise in the years ahead.
In response, there are increasing calls to manage the increased ship traffic, both to improve safety and minimize environmental impacts. A new report from Pew Charitable Trusts draws on recent data, previous Canadian government reports, and First Nations concerns to make the case. “Corridors give people a roadmap to follow,” said Louie Porta, one of the report’s authors. “A robust corridor system is a recommendation for vessels to stick to a very, very small portion of the Arctic waters as opposed to now, where there are no limits – vessels can basically go wherever they want.” The map below shows 2014 ship tracks criss-crossing key biologically important areas in the western part of the Northwest Passage; here’s a link to the full map.
According to an in-depth article on the excellent new website Arctic Deeply:
Government and Inuit groups have identified at least 38 areas of ecological and biological significance (EBSAs) occupying nearly 50 percent of Canadian Arctic waters. “There’s a high concurrence of vessel traffic patterns and areas of biological significance. We can’t say that ships can’t go where the environment is significant, but it’s possible to create a more flexible, dynamic policy that identifies what times of year ships can be in certain locations,” said Porta. . . . Under the proposed framework, shipping corridors would be identified by integrating human and vessel safety, environmental protection and Inuit rights.
The Canadian Coastguard has been working on a similar plan to concentrate shipping traffic. However, their current proposal for the Beaufort Sea allows shipping in 45% of regional ecological, biological and Inuit areas of significance, while the Pew report’s recommended lanes overlap just 25% of these key areas.
Arctic shipping is a much bigger issue than just the Northwest Passage. Arctic Deeply has been quick to dive into this important topic, including a recent piece on the impact of Arctic shipping noise on whales, and a long Q&A with a geographer who focuses on climate change and the Arctic.
Over the past few years, researchers have developed an increasingly diverse set of platforms for listening in on the world beneath the ocean’s waves. Now, in addition to recorders deployed in key areas for months at a time and temporary suction-cup acoustic tags on individual whales, a long-anticipated mobile option is moving into more widespread use. Autonomous gliders offer an enticing combination of attributes: they can operate for weeks or months at a time, exploring a region rather than staying in one place; they can be outfitted with a range of sampling capabilities; and they are relatively inexpensive to build and deploy. Subsea gliders can dive to 200 meters deep and resurface periodically to transmit data to data centers on shore; they’ve been used for physical sampling of oceanographic data (temperature, salinity, etc.) for many years, but it’s only more recently that acoustic sampling has become common.
The most exciting thing about putting recorders on gliders is that they can operate around the clock, monitoring for whales even in bad weather and at night, when ship-based researchers cannot. Plus, the cost of operating research ships means that field studies are short and targeted to areas already known to be hot spots for whale activity, while gliders can be used to explore regions that we know less about. In particular, we know that whales tend to move around season-to-season in search of the best feeding opportunities; on the Scotian Shelf in the Canadian Atlantic, some areas that are protected feeding habitat have been largely abandoned in recent years due to lack of prey. Gliders can help identify where the alternative feeding grounds may be, so they, too, can be protected.
“Ocean gliders are a new technique for gaining insights into whale ecology on Canada’s West Coast,” says David Duffus, who leads the west coast project. “Many species of concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act are termed ‘data deficient.’ We need more information on whale habitats and whale feeding ‘hot spots’ so we can put in protective measures, such as real time whale-alerts for shipping traffic.”
In addition to the longer-term goal of increasing our understanding of changing habitat use patterns, the gliders could also help reduce ship strikes. There is hope that in some especially busy shipping lanes, gliders may offer a new way to let ship captains know when whales are nearby; this is especially important for the critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale.
An ongoing challenge for ocean regulators has been our relatively coarse understanding of where ocean animals are at any given time. For many species, we’ve been limited to relatively broad-brush data, such as regional population estimates or having a moderately clear idea about particular feeding or breedings areas, with limited knowledge of where these same animals go at other times of year. All this has made the crucial task of estimating the impacts of human activities (Naval sonar and explosives exercises, oil and gas seismic surveys, construction of new shipping ports) somewhere between difficult and impossible—leading to a mountain of EISs, agency determinations, and court filings over the question of how best to protect ocean life from our noisy actions at sea. Confounding matters for all concerned, on the matter of protecting key habitat, the Navy has sometimes prevailed and sometimes lost in recent challenges.
Over the past decade or so, several projects have been bringing data together from a slew of historical studies, along with doing new surveys in the field that flesh out our understanding of animal distributions. These efforts are beginning to bear fruit.
This week, a team from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Lab released a series of maps and new mapping tools to the public and to other researchers, making available data they’ve been compiling for use in the current round of environmental analysis for the Navy’s east coast and Gulf of Mexico training ranges, and for inclusion in NOAA’s ongoing Cetacean and Sound Mapping project (also known as CetSound).
In addition to an open-access paper published in Nature Scientific Reports, a set of comprehensive species-specific supplemental reports (each one running to over a hundred pages), and a good layman’s overview using the Story Map platform, the Lab also has an online mapping portal, OBIS-SEAMAP, that displays annual animal densities for marine mammals, seabirds, sharks, rays, turtles, and even a few lizards of conservation concern. OBIS-SEAMAP—short for the Ocean Biogeographic Information System: Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations—archives hundreds of surveys, satellite telemetry datasets, and photo-ID collections, and has now expanded to include long-term archival of species distribution models. Read the rest of this entry »
A team of researchers from Oregon State University has made the first-ever recordings of what the soundscape is like in the ocean’s deepest spot: the Challenger Deep. This part of the Mariana Trench is more than 36,000 feet below the surface, but it’s not all that isolated from the normal cacophony of the seas. As lead investigator Robert Dziak says,
“You would think that the deepest part of the ocean would be one of the quietest places on Earth. Yet there is almost constant noise. The ambient sound field is dominated by the sound of earthquakes, both near and far, as well as distinct moans of baleen whales, and the clamor of a category 4 typhoon that just happened to pass overhead.”
They also heard large ships coming in “loud and strong,” and even the calls of a smaller toothed whale or dolphin relatively near the surface; you can listen to short sound clips here. It may seem surprising that sound penetrates so deep. But of course, seven miles is not really all that far in the ocean; whales routinely communicate over larger distances, and several human sounds sources are readily heard for tens of miles around (or hundreds when caught in a sound-reflecting layer). What sets the ocean’s depths apart is the extreme density of the water, which can facilitate sound transmission. Still, it’s a bit disconcerting to realize that no part of the sea is truly free of the acoustic footprints of man.
The British Columbia coast is a wild territory, yet one pockmarked with major shipping facilities. Four related ports stretch down the coast from Prince Rupert, sending coal, grain, and other products to Asian markets and south to the U.S. and beyond. Canadian First Nations and environmental groups have been raising alarms about the cumulative impacts of increased development in this remote area, while innovative ocean noise research is modeling the ways different species’ listening and communication ranges may be affected by more shipping.
Now, plans for two more port facilities, on islands just down the coast from the current Prince Rupert complex, have perhaps gone too far. These are natural gas facilities, next to and literally on top of the Flora Bank, a primary feeding area for juvenile salmon. Project proponents stress that their design will avoid damaging the area, but they seem to be discounting the potentially devastating acoustic impact of the bringing huge ships this close to a sensitive habitat.
Flora Bank, in intertidal waters off Lelu Island, contains about 60 per cent of the eel grass habitat in the Skeena Estuary, a watershed that gives birth to 200 million young salmon each year. This expanse of eel grass is a crucial way station for those that exit out the northern branch of the Skeena (the waterway off the right side of the image above); studies indicate 2-8x more salmon enter the ocean here than in other areas to the south; by some accounts, 90% of the Skeena salmon run comes through here. “It is absolutely clear that Lelu Island is the worst location for such a facility,” says Dimitry Lisitsyn, a Russian biologist who has seen the effects of oil and gas development in his country.
The companies behind the projects are making efforts to minimize disturbance of the seabed by building a raised pier, jetty, and suspension bridge and will fund the establishment of new seagrass beds nearby, with a goal of doubling the number of young salmon being supported—though similar habitat-creation projects have a spotty success rate. Yet even if they do keep a light physical footprint and avoid creating new sediments that would damage the eelgrass beds, the ships coming into both of the new ports will change the acoustic habitat irrevocably.
Alexander Vedenev, head of the Ocean Noise Laboratory at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that noise levels from the plant and ships will be audible to young salmon out to about 3km away; some young fish will avoid such sound levels or be startled away with the approach of a ship, while those who linger are likely to experience higher than normal stress levels. Both stress and reduced feeding time can affect long-term survival rates; the worst-case scenario is an abandonment of this crucial feeding ground. The current Ridley Terminals—and shipping lanes serving the other Prince Rupert ports—are just beyond the 3km range, while the new Prince Rupert LNG facility will be 2km from the edge of the Bank, and the Pacific Northwest LNG facility is right on its edge, thus flooding the entire Bank with noise.
So here we have a stretch of wild and beautiful coast, already burdened by significant shipping noise and facing the prospect of many other proposed ports, including a big one at Kitimat, in the lower right of the above image. Now, they want to extend the already-developed stretch of coastline right down to the very edge of an established critical habitat for salmon, building a jetty over the eelgrass itself and dredging a pier area off its outer fringes. This is indeed adding clear injury to an already-existing insult of prime oceanic habitat where the bulk of the Skeena’s salmon travel to and from the sea. How much is enough, folks? Yes, yes, I suppose we could just consider that stretch of coast south of Prince Rupert to be a sacrifice zone; why not extend it right to the lip of the estuary? And I don’t know the area well enough to say with certainty that the salmon can’t find other areas to feed as they make their initial foray from the inland waters of their birth and out into the wild unknown of the seas….but I can easily look at that map above and appreciate the incredible beauty of such a big, wild river, pouring through the mountains from headwaters deep in the heart of British Columbia. Why would we want to desecrate its mouth?
I’ve been following this project since its Kickstarter beginnings, and am pleased to see how well they’ve implemented their innovative idea at HowLoud.com. The goal is to provide a standardized measure of community noise levels in cities and towns across the country; they’re up to over a thousand now, including all mid-sized urban areas and many connecting regions of smaller towns in the east and midwest. Their “Soundscore” is a combination of traffic noise, airport noise, and general hubbub of nearby businesses; it’s all computer modeled, and overlaid on zoomable maps. Here are a couple of examples:
Troy, NY, a mid-sized college and old industrial town along the Hudson River. Note the I-787 corridor on the far side of the river, and the relatively rapid drop-off of neighborhood noise as you move away from the core downtown area.
And my current home in Kennebunk, ME, in a quiet neighborhood. You can see the much smaller downtown noise footprint in the lower right, and the more modest highway noise from the Maine Turnpike on the left.
You can zoom in on these maps to pick out individual homes; part of HowLoud’s financial model is licensing these maps to real estate companies, in hopes that the relative Soundscore may become a selling point for homes in quieter areas. I can well imagine renters being equally interested in having better idea of where the sounds of a city center begin to moderate a bit.
The folks behind HowLoud have prioritized using a consistent metric nationwide, so that comparisons are valid. It seems to me that their 100-point scale is slightly nudged toward a suburban tolerance for noise, rather than than a deeply rural baseline. By that I mean that the dark-blue areas of their maps are probably not as totally free of noise as you may imagine; I’m thinking of the spot not far from my current home in the screenshot above, which looks to rate around 90, and a deeper blue zone in a land trust property in town that appears to be close to 100, neither of which is truly close to noise-free. I suspect that this may be largely due to the fuzziness of the Federal Highway Administration highway noise model that provides their foundation. These are based on 24-hour averages, which is practical for assessing impact, but doesn’t reflect on-the-ground experience: the 24-hr average is lower than the daytime peak of traffic noise, but higher than the nighttime average (but again, usually lower than the sound of a single car or truck passing in the night). The FHA model may also somewhat underestimate sound propagation from roads (for example, that Turnpike in the lower picture is readily audible at night, even in the dark blue zone).
But I’m nitpicking! This is a fantastic first take on an initiative that we really should extend to include the vast, un-urbanized parts of the country as well. NOAA is beginning to do these sorts of noise model maps for the world’s oceans, while the National Park Service and other researchers have done some country-wide modeling similar to this project. I’m all for the potential to use these techniques as a way to target remaining refuges of natural quiet for recognition and protection in the years and decades to come; every little relatively quiet pocket is valuable, and maps like these can help us realize what’s still there, just far enough from roads that we can still experience the landscape on its own terms.
Once again the wind industry has been caught crying wolf about reasonable and workable setback increases. In 2014, the Ohio legislature tweaked the state’s wind farm siting standards to require setbacks of 1300 feet from neighboring property lines, rather than from neighboring homes. Wind energy advocates gnashed their teeth, with an executive of the national trade association, AWEA, claiming that “This would kill further wind energy development in Ohio unless the governor vetoes it,” while the CEO of wind developer Apex Clean Energy chimed in that with such odious setbacks, Apex “will have no choice but to take its investment and its business elsewhere. ”
Get ready for a shock, AWEA: Amazon, not phased at all by the setbacks, has announced plans to build a 100-MW wind farm to power two new distribution centers in Ohio. And, in a late-2014 review of the status of 11 projects that are in the pipeline, it was federal tax credits and lapsed state renewable energy incentives that were cited as current challenges, not the setbacks. While it’s quite possible that previously-approved projects are proceeding under the old setback rules, the same statewide overview notes that “several other companies, including Apex Clean Energy of Virginia, are acquiring lease rights and working on plans.” (Wait, what? Yup, the same outfit that just told us the setbacks ruined everything so they’d be taking their toys and going home still have four Ohio projects in the pipeline.)
It’s disheartening to see the wind industry employing these same shopworn scare tactics about moderate setbacks; no matter what the proposal, if it’s an increase over something that has been on the table, it’s decried as “killing” the possibility of wind energy in the area. Anything over the 750-1000 foot setbacks that the industry prefers is considered extreme; in Ohio, claims that the old 1300-ft to homes setback was among the most stringent in the nation are practically a joke, with 1250-1500-foot limits now becoming the norm, and many areas going much further. In Minnesota, a 1500-ft setback was eagerly embraced in lieu of a proposed 2700-ft rule; in Maine, a 2000-ft setback was deemed perfectly workable by a developer who was fighting a change to 4000-ft, after which they switched gears and pinpointed a 35dBA noise limit as the real “deal killer.”
Indeed, nighttime noise limits of 35dB or less can mean that setbacks will need to be large enough (4000 feet or more) to rule out development in most communities. Still, it’s entirely reasonable for some towns to choose such low noise limits, or setbacks of a half mile or more, if the priority is to preseve the rural character of place and assure that few if any residents will hear turbine noise on a regular basis. Ideally, these more restrictive rules would also include the option that wind developers can obtain noise easements from neighbors who are willing to live closer to turbines (often in return for a financial payout, either one-time or annual). And guess what? The much-decried Ohio rules do allow individual landowners to waive the setback requirement, if they wish to; this may be part of why so many projects are still happening. It’s time for the wind industry to stop moaning about setbacks meant to preserve some semblance of rural character, and begin making peace with the fact that not all communities will make the same choices about opportunities for economic development.
Looking ahead in Ohio: Even as Amazon, Apex, and others proceed with their plans in Ohio, representatives from several northwestern Ohio districts have introduced a bill to let counties supersede the state rules and revert to the old setback standards on a case by case basis. (Will it surprise you to hear that it’s in this very region where Amazon is happy to build with the current rules? I thought not….) So far, there does not seem to be any active reconsideration of the other key element of the 2014 rule changes in Ohio, a 2-year freeze of the state renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) at 2.5%—foregoing the planned 1% annual increases toward a 2025 goal of 12.5%—while the legislature reviews the RPS program. Presumably, a decision will be made during the coming year whether to revert to the old schedule or adopt new, lower targets.
UPDATE, 1/29/2016: While I’m not tracking all the news related to new projects, a couple of things caught my eye recently. Two companies, including Apex, abandoned plans for wind farms in Ohio, though the news reports, and perhaps the formal notices filed with state regulators, don’t specify why; there are many reasons that proposed project aren’t completed, including the financial health of the companies themselves, and the fact that they often do preliminary work in many more places than they ultimately choose to build. Relatedly, the Scioto Ridge Wind Farm, which was among those supposedly threatened by the new Ohio rules, is still under development; on January 26, the project’s Facebook page recently posted a local news article about an agreement reached between Everpower and a local opposition group, which reduced the number of turbines from 176 to 107; such reductions sometimes involve a move to bigger turbines, and it’s unclear whether the footprint is smaller (and so some setbacks larger) under the agreement. Nonetheless, another local group has vowed to continue fighting the plans.
A new network of long-term acoustic monitoring stations is being deployed by NOAA-funded researchers in ocean waters from Massachusetts to the Arctic and Samoa. The Ocean Noise Reference Station (ONRS) Network represents the next step in data collection for NOAA, which has increased its focus on ocean noise in recent years.
Agencies, researchers, and NGOs are all concerned about the effects of chronic moderate noise on whales, seals, and fish (along with crustaceans and even eggs and larvae). NOAA’s ocean noise mapping project is a big step forward, but it’s largely based on modeling of known ship and seismic survey activity. Actual recordings made at sea by various researchers serve as “ground-truthing” for these models; early indications have been that the models are pretty good, usually within 5-10dB of actual recorded levels.
The ONRS network takes acoustic monitoring another step forward by deploying identical equipment in many regions, thus collecting “consistent and comparable multi-year acoustic data sets covering all major regions of the U.S.” In addition to getting a better idea of regional differences (and consistencies), researchers will be investigating “how the ‘soundscapes’ at each of these sites changes, i.e. does it become noisier, are there more or less biological sounds, and is there a dramatic shift in the species present?” All this will feed into NOAA’s ten-year effort to develop an Ocean Noise Strategy.
The most recent deployment took place this fall at the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast near San Francisco (it’s not even on the maps on the NOAA site yet, though I added it above as NRS11). The hydrophone deployment mission (right) received substantial funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), along with the ongoing NOAA support for data collection and analysis. Cordell Bank is one of the richest foraging grounds for marine mammals, thanks to an upwelling of cold water that attracts a wide range of species to feed. At the same time, many of the thousands of ships traveling from Asia to ports in San Francisco Bay and further south along the California coast pass close enough that their “acoustic footprint” extends into the Sanctuary. This can, at the very least, make it harder for whales or fish to hear each other as well as they’re used to, limiting the area over which they can communicate and causing them to raise their voices. There are also indication that some species expend energy avoiding moderate noise, and that feeding and perhaps mating can be temporarily disrupted. Most pernicious may be the possibility that living in elevated noise can increase physiological stress, triggering “a suite of negative effects,” according to one of the researchers.
Other research efforts are also adding to our understanding of the effects of shipping noise. In Canada, Port Metro Vancouver recently deployed a hydrophone to examine the underwater noise from container ships headed into its facilities. 3000 such vessels traverse the waters each year, along with even more ferry transits and various recreational boats. It’s part of the Port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program. One of its most interesting goals is to zero in on ships that may be unusually loud and in need of some maintenance:
The hope is to establish baseline information to track noise levels and to identify noise levels from specific ships. The results could lead to simple mitigation measures such as hull and propeller cleaning, shore-based financial incentives, and information for regulatory agencies and for naval architects to build quieter ships.
Here’s some more from the researchers on that project.
And in the Bering Sea, acoustic monitoring is providing important baseline data on marine mammal presence, which will play into any future oil and gas development, as well as the potential for global shipping to extend into Arctic regions as polar ice melts:
“This passive acoustic monitoring technique allows us to detect the presence of vocalizing marine mammals continuously — 24 hours per day — in all weather conditions, over periods of weeks to months, over distances of 20 to 30 kilometers, and is a proven sampling method in the waters offshore Alaska,” explained lead researcher Kathleen Stafford.
Meanwhile, eavesdropping went on during the summer and fall in the Gulf of Mexico, and plans are being made for a recording network all the way around Antarctica, in some of the world’s most remote and acoustically pristine waters.
We’re listening more closely and widely than we ever have—the next question will be, are we willing to actually do something with what we learn, and find ways to slow or roll back our relentless intrusion into the natural soundscapes of the oceans?
A sneakily fascinating legal response was recently released, in which the State of Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS) responds to request by wind farm neighbor Paul Brouha for relief from noise coming from the Sheffield Wind Farm. Most of the technical back-and-forth amounts to quibbling between sound experts about 1-3dB differences, caused by slightly different monitoring techniques. This minutia matters, in that it may determine whether the Sheffield project is just barely in compliance or just barely too loud at times; after all, limits are limits. However, as usual in such situations, even if slight adjustments in operations were made to bring the sound levels down 1-3dB, such small changes are unlikely to change how loud the sounds seems at the home in question (the human ear generally can’t perceive a difference of less than 3dB).
Still, buried in the data at the end of the submission is some interesting information about how often sound levels reach various thresholds in each season. The wind farm company, Vermont Wind, had done some on-the-ground sound monitoring at a location slightly closer than Brouha’s home, and the results shed some light on why some wind farm neighbors may be bothered by the noise.
Click through for the full story. Read the rest of this entry »
New paper pinpoints “opportunity sites” for acoustic habitat protection near proposed oil sands shipping routeBioacoustics, Ocean, Science, shipping No Comments »
AEI lay summary of Rob Williams, Christine Erbe, Erin Ashe, Christopher Clark. Quiet(er) marine protected areas. Marine Pollution Bulletin (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ j.marpolbul.2015.09.012 View or download paper online
Over the past decade or so, concern about ocean noise has expanded from its initial focus injuries and deaths caused by periodic loud events, such as sonar or seismic surveys. Many researchers are now working to understand the ways that widespread, chronic shipping noise affects marine creatures’ behavior, foraging success, and stress levels. Long-term deployment of hydrophones, sound models that extrapolate from shipping data, and slow-but-steady improvements in our knowledge of the hearing ranges and population densities of particular species have all combined to open exciting new avenues for research that can inform policy decisions in the years to come.
Using these new measurement and modeling techniques, researchers can quantify the “acoustic quality” of marine habitats. This starts with charting the extent of shipping noise, while also considering the different auditory ranges of various species of interest. Next, researchers map where animals tends to congregate in various seasons, to identify areas that are especially important to each species.
Of particular importance is identifying areas that have, so far, remained relatively free of shipping noise. If at all possible, we’ll want to avoid extending the human noise footprint into these increasingly rare acoustic havens. A research team that’s been active on Canada’s southwest coast over the past few years has been at the forefront of these techniques, and has just published a new paper that introduces the concept of “opportunity sites”—areas used by each species that are still relatively quiet, and so have high long-term conservation value.
“We tend to focus on problems in conservation biology. This was a fun study to work on, because we looked for opportunities to protect species by working with existing patterns in noise and animal distribution, and found that British Colombia offers many important habitat for whales that are still quiet,” said Dr. Rob Williams, lead author of the study. “If we think of quiet, wild oceans as a natural resource, we are lucky that Canada is blessed with globally rare pockets of acoustic wilderness. It makes sense to talk about protecting acoustic sanctuaries before we lose them.”
Below left: population density of harbor porpoise in coastal waters of British Columbia; below center: ship noise, weighted to harbor porpoise hearing; below right: opportunity sites to preserve high-quality acoustic habitat for harbor porpoises. Red indicates “highest”, blue “lowest” on all maps.
These new opportunity maps make it painfully obvious how little of each species’ habitat is free of excessive shipping noise. In the example above, harbor porpoises can only find high quality acoustic habitat in a couple of small areas. Without some concerted effort to protect these areas, they will continue to shrink.
While recognizing that many areas of critical habitat are already too loud (in particular, the entire Seattle/Vancouver region), the authors acknowledge that reducing existing noise is difficult—limiting shipping, or reducing the noise made by boats, has social and economic costs that can be hard to accept. By contrast, the areas they’ve identified merely need to be maintained in close to their current acoustic condition, which will be far easier to accomplish. As the authors note:
In our professional opinion, if two places are equally important to whales, with one being noisy and the other being quiet, it would be helpful to identify those areas and present that information to decision-makers. The noisy area may require mitigation, whereas the quiet area may make a more attractive or convenient candidate for critical habitat protection, either because it represents higher quality habitat to the animals or because it imposes lower economic costs to society to mitigate anthropogenic threats.
This may not mean excluding new activities from these regions, because, again in the authors’ words, “a particular marine environment could be dominated by anthropogenic underwater noise that is perceived as being loud to one species, but quiet to another.” Indeed, the opportunity maps differ for each species (though that area on the eastern side of the large island of Haida Gwaii recurs in most). So, we will need to pay close attention to what species are present, how well they’ll hear the new noise sources, and the ways they may respond.
Generally, large ship noise is far more audible for baleen whales (humpback, fin, etc.) than for smaller toothed whales (dolphins, orca), which vocalize and hear at higher frequencies. That’s not to say that the smaller whales don’t hear big ships; they often do, and in many cases, they respond at a lower sound level than larger whales, so even if the ships are “fainter” to their ears, their reactions may be similar.
While this paper steers clear of any sort of advocacy tone, and does no more than present the new “opportunity sites” analysis and mapping technique, the waters being studied are at the center of a contentious public policy debate. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the oil sands region of Alberta would dramatically increase tanker traffic to the existing deep-water port at Kitimat (yellow arrow, left). Such an increase through Caamano Sound (red arrow, left) would threaten the humpback whale opportunity site (map, left) identified just south of the Sound. Several years ago, co-author Rob Williams told reporters, “Caamano Sound may be one of the last chances we have on this coastline to protect an acoustically quiet sanctuary for whales. … We don’t exactly know why this area is so rich, but there are some long, narrow channels that serve as bottlenecks for food, making it easier for whales to feed.” A consortium of environmental organizations is currently challenging the Canadian government’s approval of the pipeline, claiming that the approval did not take into account the humpback recovery plan, identifying Hecate Strait (the larger area between the mainland and the large offshore island) as a critical humpback feeding ground. The pipeline is being challenged on several fronts (including strong opposition from B.C. First Nations communities); considering acoustic habitat protection, limiting new ship traffic during the times of year when the current opportunity sites are being heavily used would seem to be the least we can do.
After being slammed by a federal judge in March, the US Navy has agreed to keep sonar training and explosives testing and training out of several biologically important areas off the California and Hawaii coasts. This week, settlement talks with NRDC, Earthjustice, and other plaintiffs resulted in a final order, which will remain in effect through 2018, when the current round of permits expire. This is a substantial victory for the environmental groups, the first legal affirmation of a long-standing argument that the Navy can and should keep its loudest activities out of areas where whales and other sea creatures congregate. It’s especially notable after losing a similar case targeting the Northwest Training Range Complex last year, in which the judge ruled that the Navy had suitably considered the question of whether exclusion zones would reduce harm to animals. This time, a different federal judge was much more amenable to the fundamental idea that the Navy can achieve its training mission without totally unfettered access to all corners of the seas.
While mid-frequency active sonar has received the most attention, recent EIS’s and permits for Navy training and testing activities have made it clear that explosives trigger the vast majority of the potential injuries and deaths, as well as a huge number of the behavioral reactions that are also of concern to environmental advocates. This agreement totally bans in-water explosive testing and training from an area between Santa Catalina and San Nicolas Islands off southern California and from nearly all Hawaiian near-shore areas (the exception being the waters between Hawaii and Maui). Mid-frequency active sonar “major training exercises” will be excluded from the two of the four zones around Hawaii island and a zone west of Molokai; while both major exercises and small-group or single-boat sonar are banned in a nearshore area off San Diego during the five months each year when Blue whales are present. Meanwhile, sonar activity will continue as part of large training exercises several times per year in other nearshore Hawaiian waters; waters farther offshore and between the specified exclusion zones will also remain available for sonar and explosives training and testing.
UPDATE, 11/13/15: Unsurprisingly, this recent court ruling did not derail the ongoing finalization of a similar 5-year permit for Navy training in another area, off the Pacific Northwest coast of WA, OR, and northern CA. NMFS has signaled its approval of Navy plans there; it was a similar NMFS action that triggered the lawsuit and recent settlement in the southern California/Hawaii training range. It appears that while there are some bombing and live fire exercises planned in the PacNW training range, those activities may be less extensive or intense; no mortalities are predicted to occur.
“This settlement proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Marsha Green, president of the Ocean Mammal Institute, in a statement. “The Navy can meet its training and testing needs and, at the same time, provide significant protections to whales and dolphins by limiting the use of sonar and explosives in vital habitat.”
It’s not clear how often the exclusion zones have been actively used for these now-banned exercises in the past; the Naval Training Ranges include vast expanses of ocean around Hawaii and off the California coast. We do know that four dolphins died in 2011 after an explosive exercise in the area between the two Californian islands, and presumably routine smaller-unit sonar training has ranged through some of the near-shore waters now off-limits. The exclusion zones range from 15-30 miles wide around Hawaiian shorelines; the San Diego exclusion zone extends about 15 miles offshore and along 30 miles of coast, while the offshore area between the two Californian islands is nearly 60 miles long and around 15 miles wide. Within these areas, injuries and deaths should now be generally avoided (though the Navy contends that such incidents are already extremely rare; see this post for a deep dive into the question of the estimated “take” numbers). However, the large numbers of behavioral reactions, or Level B takes, are unlikely to be reduced much at all by these changes, since they occur at much greater distances (70% of Level B takes occur at 25-50 miles). Indeed, even the exclusion zones themselves may well experience sound levels high enough to trigger behavioral changes when exercises take place in nearby waters; however, the most disruptive behavioral reactions, such as interruptions in feeding or mating, or disruptions of mother-calf interactions, should be reduced significantly within the exclusion zones. And, this settlement could set the stage for more exclusion zones in the next round of 5-year impact assessments and permits covering training ranges in waters along most parts of the US coastline.
The new frontier for mining is the bottom of the ocean. When done in relatively shallow waters (500m or less), it’s known as seabed mining (SBM); in areas where the seafloor is deeper, it’s called deep sea mining (DSM). In the past five years, the International Seabed Authority, a UN agency that oversees commercial activity in international waters, has issued 27 exploration licenses, each good for 15 years. So far, no mines are active in deep waters, but that’s likely to change soon:
If you’d like to get up to speed on what’s going on in the field, this resource page from the Ocean Foundation is a great place to start. It includes links to major agency, industry, and NGO players and to several reports of interest. Noise is considered a significant impact from SBM and DSM, though seafloor habitat disturbance (both physical disruption and the addition of light to areas normally very dark) and plumes of sediment in water being returned from the processing ship above are the primary impacts.
Mining at sea often has a much smaller social and ecological footprint than terrestrial mining; among other factors, many seabed mineral reserves have a higher concentration of the minerals of interest than those on land, especially after centuries of mining the best ores. Still, one common target for ocean mining is deep sea vents, which are biologically rich thanks to their concentration of minerals and temperature differentials. We’re still in the early years of grappling with how to assess the significance of the impacts on seafloor habitats. Moving forward, we need to be considering what proportion of each regional habitat type will be allowed to be disrupted, and, as ever, we should be particularly cautious about introducing industrial activity into areas that are still relatively free of other human activity (this is especially important in regards to noise). See previous AEI coverage of this issue here.
Recent policy changes by the UK government have spurred the developers of the Nocton Fen wind farm to pull the plug on their project. The new government policy accelerated a planned end to wind farm subsidies, setting an end date of April 2016, and added a requirement that all wind projects receive approval by nearby residents via a local or neighborhood plan.
In response to these changes, Swedish wind developer Vattenfall held a six-week local consultation, and this week announced it would not proceed with the project:
Graham Davey, Vattenfall’s Project Manager for the Nocton Fen Wind Energy Project, said: “It’s obviously disappointing to stop development of Nocton Fen as it would have delivered significant benefit locally and generated affordable, clean and renewable energy for tens of thousands of homes every year.
“It was clear that proposed changes to onshore wind planning in England introduced increased risk in the process. Stopping the scheme now is a sensible decision.
North Kesteven District Council Leader, Councillor Marion Brighton OBE, spoke for the locals, saying, “We welcome Vattenfall’s decision and appreciate them making this announcement so soon after the close of their recent statutory pre-application engagement. Their proposals would have been unreasonably intrusive in terms of the landscape character and amenity of local communities and I am sure that this decision not to proceed will be of significant comfort in bringing clarity on Vattenfall’s position in light of the Government’s recent policy announcements.”
This particular wind farm would have been built on the estate of vacuum cleaner tycoon James Dyson, and had raised local ire from the start due to its proximity to a local landmark, the Lincoln Cathedral; the turbines would be twice its height. “Lincoln Cathedral defines the landscape for miles in each direction,” said Melvin Grosvenor, who lives in the village of Baumber, 10 miles west of the proposed site. “This [wind farm] would spoil the long-distance view that has existed for a thousand years and change the character of the whole area.”
There are currently 250 wind farm proposals, totaling 2500 turbines, that may be similarly affected by the policy changes; time will tell whether the UK’s on-shore wind industry grinds to a halt, or adapts and finds a way forward. It’s unclear from recent reports whether the loss of subsidies is deal-killer for wind developers, or whether some projects may be viable without subsidies, if they are far enough from neighbors to gain local support.
Somewhere out in the vast expanse of the Snake River plain this summer, the sounds of a natural gas compressor floats across the sage-strewn landscape. Look around though, and you won’t see any wellpads or boxy compressor stations. If your eyes are sharp, you may spy the source of the intrusive sound: a large solar-powered speaker.
It’s part of phase two of a study looking into the effects of human noises on wildlife. Phase one was the “Phantom Road,” a half-mile string of speakers set up in an Idaho forest, which found that traffic noise caused notable changes in the makeup of the nearby bird population. About half of the species in the area showed some avoidance of the sounds, with two species nearly absent when the speakers were on (one species preferred the noisy periods). This study was summarized in AEI’s 2014 poster that summarized research on “The Effects of Chronic Moderate Noise on Animal Behavior and Distribution.”
By using speakers, rather than studying actual roads or oil development sites, researchers are able to separate out the effect of noise from the effects of the physical disruptions of the habitat (the loss of plant cover at the site itself, and access roads to the facilities).
The oil field study, which includes a six sites with speakers and six control sites with no added noise, is looking at effects of the noise on birds, bats, and insects. And, they’ve brought birders out to their sites to see how oil development may affect their ability to hear birds and enjoy the landscape. Some of the birders were surprised at how much even distant compressor noise interfered. “The whole thing has been ear-opening, shall we say,” said Jim Lyons of Boise. “To be part of this is very stimulating, very interesting. I am going to think about it from now on.”
A summer-long project of the British Library and the National Trust, Sounds of Our Shores, has attracted hundreds of submissions from every part of the country. A click on that link will take you to their online collection of sounds, presented in an easy-to-browse format. This recent article from Yorkshire captures some of the enthusiasm that the project has spurred among both the public and the organizers.
Musician Martyn Ware will weave some of the recordings into a new composition later this year. He urged people to “go to the coast, close your eyes and reawaken the most underrated sense of all – hearing – and pay attention to the beauty of your sensory environment and you will be repaid a thousandfold.”
For National Trust ranger for the Yorkshire Coast, Zoe Frank, the region’s coastline had varied and exciting sounds to offer. She said: “There are so many, but my favourites would include Ravenscar, when, as you walk along the clifftops, you can hear the seals on the beach below. It can be quite an eerie sound, almost like barking.” The “deafening” sounds of kittiwakes during nesting season at Saltburn, and the trickling waterfall at Hayburn Wyke, which runs into the sea just up the coast from Scarborough, also make up some of the “wonderful” natural sounds of the Yorkshire coastline, Ms Frank said.
It’s not all tranquil nature along the coast, though. Harbors alive with fishing boats, street sounds in villages, and the region’s railway heritage all capture the ears of contributors:
Danielle Ramsey, marketing manager of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway said the “lullaby” of the steam trains as they make their way from the market town of Pickering, across the Moors and the national park through to Whitby, was “one of those sounds you won’t find anywhere else.”
“The mixture of the sound of the engines with the waves, and the train tooting as it leaves Whitby for the Moors, is very special,” she said. “There’s a sense of excitement when you hear a steam train, as you go past every bridge there will be people waiting, with their camera phones ready, after hearing it approaching.”
It’s not much, but it’s a start. The troubled FAA/NPS collaborative planning process has completed an actual final plan to manage air tours at a national park. But don’t get too excited: it’s not a full-on Air Tour Management Plan, as was the goal for all national parks with sightseeing flights when the two agencies were charged with the task fifteen years ago. Taking advantage of new rules encouraging voluntary agreements with air tour providers, Biscayne National Park in Florida is on the verge of finalizing such agreements with two flight providers.
The good news is that these agreements limit flights from 8am to 6pm, which leaves sunrise free from flights year-round, while sunsets only occur a bit before 6pm for a couple months in the heart of winter. Similar provisions for flight-free times extending an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise at the Grand Canyon were derailed at the last minute by Senators McCain and Reid in a rare show of bipartisan meddling. The Grand Canyon remains the only National Park with a formal air tour plan, thanks in part to the fact that the FAA was not part of that process, which predated the start of the FAA/NPS efforts (the FAA and NPS have different approaches to the EIS process, which they’ve been unable to resolve). So it may be an encouraging sign that the first agreements to come out of the joint planning do manage to keep the magic hours on each end of the day free for quieter recreation.
Of course, Biscayne is not your typical National Park. Within sight of Miami, there is plenty of boat traffic and most of the action takes place near the seashore, with all of its natural and human soundscapes, as well as on and under the waters of Biscayne Bay. Plus, the number of air tours is small (200 annual flights, most from November to May), and there is probably little demand for sunrise and sunset flights. Still, perhaps this first small step will set a precedent for plans at other parks.
Shell Oil is gearing up to do the first new exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska. The project has been in the pipeline for years, and has faced numerous legal challenges (mostly regarding the danger of a spill and climate imperatives) and logistical snafus (the most extreme being a drill ship that ran aground). Just last month, a consortium of environmental groups filed a suit challenging the most recent permits; there has yet to be a ruling. The expansion of oil and gas development from Alaska’s north slope to offshore waters will create a marked increase in human noise in an ocean region that is currently relatively free of our intrusions. Exploration leases have been sold in both the Chukchi Sea (left below) and Beaufort Sea (right below).
Earlier this year, the Obama administration officially put some areas in these waters off limits, but a close inspection of the maps presented then reveal that virtually none of these areas were planned for development when the above map was created in 2008; the exclusion zones appear to match the near-shore areas excluded above (one exception: a small portion of the Chukchi zone is now off-limits).
Noise concerns extend far beyond the drilling itself, or even the seismic surveys that take place prior to drilling and during the life of the project. The drill rigs come along with a support fleet of 30 other boats and several aircraft, promising a steady din in the area. “In the Arctic, I can’t emphasize how novel an activity this is,” says NRDC attorney Giulia Good Stefani. “It really is a whole new level of disturbance for an area already experiencing rapid change and stress.” Concerns extend from whales to walruses, seals, and polar bears.
A wide array of ongoing research is underway, aiming to characterize the current soundscape in arctic waters. Read the rest of this entry »
As regular readers may know, I really dislike the expansion of mining into the sea. Not content to be filling the seas with the sounds of our ships and seismic survey airguns traversing the surface, we seem intent on extending our industrial footprint and sound-making onto the seafloor. The oil and gas industry is already there, with its “subsea processing” facilities, as covered extensively by our friends at Ocean Conservation Research. And now, here come the miners:
What’s not to hate about this? And indeed, I was quickly riled up by a proposal to mine phosphate near a Gray whale birthing lagoon in Baja California, Mexico. An article on The Ecologist’s website stressed the mine’s threat to San Ignacio Lagoon, the southernmost of two lagoons where over 2500 whales arrive each winter to give birth and nurse their young. The mining will take place in five areas within a 350 square zone, 12-21 miles from shore, and roughly 35-70 miles from the mouth of San Ignacio (inlet in pink on map below; mining area in grey).
Spurred by this article, I dug into the project’s environmental assessment to get a sense of how extensive the noise impact of this new mining operation would be. And while there may well be serious issues with returning sediment to the ocean after separation on boats above, direct effects on local animal populations living in the mining zone, and other environmental impacts from the unproven mining techniques to be employed, I have to say that I was surprised at how modest the noise will be. Read the rest of this entry »
A new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) effort to modernize air traffic flow around major cities is ignoring the chance to do slight re-routing that would minimize air traffic over dwindling areas of natural quiet. The FAA is in the midst of a multi-year process to update the traffic patterns in and out of airports in 17 metropolitan areas. Each “metroplex” is served by multiple airports, and the FAA’s goal is to increase efficiency and on-time performance, using a number of strategies, including more precise coordination of flights into shared flight paths. This includes some effort to consolidate flight corridors, which has the good news/bad news effect of reducing air traffic noise over many areas, while increasing it in some of the new corridors. Unfortunately, some of the new concentrations of activity are over areas that were previously sanctuaries of natural quiet.
The National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Program got involved early in this process, in the hopes that the new traffic schemes could reduce air traffic over relatively quiet park and wilderness lands. Over the past twenty years, the NPS has pioneered efforts to highlight and protect natural soundscapes; their monitoring and management techniques are gradually being adopted by public lands managers in other state and federal agencies. While deep wilderness settings are often the focus of these efforts (e.g. Grand Canyon, Yellowstone), many NPS holdings closer to urban areas provide easily accessible experiences of natural quiet.
A recent in-depth article in the East Bay Express looks at the way this has unfolded in the FAA’s planning of the Northern California Metroplex around the San Francisco bay area. The FAA has largely spurned the input from NPS, which hoped to protect or improve natural quiet opportunities in the Point Reyes National Seashore and in Yosemite National Park. Despite formal NPS requests, Read the rest of this entry »
In July 2011, 70 pilot whales were spotted in the shallow Kyle of Durness on the north coast of Scotland; as the tide went out, at least 39 were stranded. Quick efforts by locals and live-stranding groups managed to refloat 20 animals, but 19 perished. This month, a report commissioned by the UK’s governing agency, DEFRA, concluded that a series of bomb-disposal explosions were the most likely cause of the stranding. It’s a good reminder that much of the potential impact on wildlife from Navy exercises is from traditional ordinance, rather than sonar.
While pilot whales are relatively common around Scotland, and there have been numerous strandings through the years, it’s unusual that they would venture into such a shallow, tidal bay. It seems likely that the pod was in the area relatively near shore (either following food, or transiting between feeding locations) when several bombs were exploded on the day before the stranding (yellow pointer on image). Navigational error (perhaps caused by hearing impairment) left them in the mouth of the bay (red pointer), 3-5 miles away, rather than offshore; the strandings had just begun when the final bomb was exploded the next day, which likely drove more animals into the shallows.
The report suggests that some whales may well have been close enough to suffer temporary or permanent hearing damage. In the most damning finding, it appears clear that monitoring for nearby animals was cursory at best, done only from small inflatable boats: Read the rest of this entry »
Update, 6/29/15: The drama continues in Dixfield, where a recount has reversed the recent approval of a more restrictive wind farm ordinance. The initial 5-vote margin turned into a 31-vote victory for the other side, with the final tally being 390-359, against the revisions. Town Manager Carlo Puiia and the chairman of the board of selectmen were both present for the recount; Puiia says, “There were several of us in the room, and a number of people were there as witnesses. I think we pinpointed where the problem was, and that this is an accurate count.” He added, “The Board of Selectmen will discuss this at their next meeting on July 13. My prediction is that they’ll continue to work off of what the Planning Board has already done. It has a lot of good stuff in it.” If so, then we can look forward to a fourth round of voting sometime soon; the faction in town that favors letting the wind project proceed has narrowly prevailed in each of the three votes held so far. The bad blood and distrust in town was highlighted in the days following the recount, when some locals became convinced that the wind company was immediately trucking turbine parts up to the site; in fact, the local project has yet to begin its lengthy permitting process, and the turbines were bound for a previously-approved project in nearby Carthage.
35dB night limit wins approval in divided Maine town
The town of Dixfield, Maine has approved a new wind ordinance that includes setbacks of 4000 feet from neighboring residences, 2000 feet from project boundaries, and a night time noise limit of 35dB. The latter provision is said to be a deal-killer by Patriot Renewables, which planned to build a 20MW project on a ridge in town (picture shows simulation from 2 miles away).
For the third time in less than three years, local voters were asked to approve changes in its wind ordinance; each time, the vote was a nail-biter. Read the rest of this entry »
This week the Indian Navy confirmed its purchase of six low-frequency Active Towed Array Sonar (ACTAS) units, for use in tracking Chinese subs in the Indian Ocean. With a stated detection range of 60km (37mi), it appears that this system puts out far less sound than low frequency systems used by the US (SURTASS LFAS) or the British (Sonar 2087), both of which are effective to at least 100 nautical miles, and can be detected at much greater distances. It is remarkably hard to find information about the proliferation of these systems; the German-made ACTAS system is presumably being used elsewhere as well, while the UK Sonar 2087 is deployed on several UK Navy ships, and was recently also purchased by Chilean Navy. So far, the US Navy has plans to outfit 4 ships with its SURTASS LFA system, and it is used regularly in the western Pacific, monitoring Chinese and North Korean activity. While environmental groups continue to challenge US deployment of LFAS and to add biological safeguards to training programs using mid-frequency active sonar (see AEI coverage of both), these and similar systems continue to spread into waters around the world.
Bioacousticians and marine advocates have been closely following plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia, which would greatly increase ship traffic in some coastal waterways that are relatively quiet so far; see previous AEInews coverage. But another pipeline project, farther along in the permitting process, could push the already stressed waters of southern BC and northern Washington to the acoustic breaking point. The Trans Mountain Pipeline, built in 1953 and expanded several times since then, is gearing up to nearly triple its capacity and make adaptations that will allow heavy tar sands oil to be moved to the Pacific coast for shipment to Asia.
The expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline would have 75% of the capacity of the proposed Keystone KL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, so it has triggered active resistance on similar climate change grounds as Keystone. At the same time, ocean advocates are stressing the cumulative impact of the additional 720 tanker transits that would occur in already-busy waters that include critical habitats for killer whales, sea lions, and other species. At this point, most of the additional capacity is targeted for Burnaby, BC (increasing monthly tanker arrivals from 5 to 34), though the pipeline also serves terminals in northern Washington state. (Some of the current capacity is refined and used in North America, but virtually all of the increased capacity will be shipped overseas; thus the tanker traffic will increase 7-fold despite the smaller capacity increase.)
The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has just released a review of the Trans Mountain proposal, which is currently being considered by the National Energy Board (NEB), and finds it lacking, saying it contains “insufficient information” to adequately assess the threats posed both by underwater noise and ship strikes. “The assessment considers noise from a single project-related ship, without taking into account the additive and cumulative effects of existing noise,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada concludes.
Marine advocates second that concern. Margot Venton, a staff lawyer with Ecojustice, stresses that “The critical habitat is basically as noisy as it can be. We need to make it quieter.” Misty MacDuffee, a fisheries ecologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said anything that impedes the ability of whales to feed is a serious concern. “It’s just the growing din,” she said. “They are trying to [communicate and hunt] in an increasingly loud environment.” (Thanks to the Globe and Mail for their coverage and all these quotes.)
The NEB review is slated to be concluded by July; the federal government will then take six months to consider the NEB’s recommendation and make a final decision. If approved, construction could begin in 2016 and be completed the following year.