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AEI Spotlight Report

Ocean Noise 2008:
Science, Policy, Legal Developments


[Ocean Noise 2008 (pdf, 4MB)]
Click on this link to open Ocean Noise 2008 as a pdf in a new window
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[Ocean Noise 2007 Report]

[Ocean Noise 2006 Report]


This year, the annual Acoustic Ecology Institute Spotlight Report on recent developments in ocean noise is too large for easy viewing on a web page. So, we've created a pdf version that you can download (or view in your browser if you're a glutton for punishment). Here's what you'll find there:

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. 

In this, AEI’s third annual overview of ocean noise, we take a slightly different approach to the material.  In addition to our established “just the facts, ma’am” summaries of new field research, regulatory decisions, and legal rulings, we will include more narrative that aims to provide some context on the ways that this year’s developments suggest important new directions in our society’s approach to noise-making, and noise regulation, in the oceans.

As ever, the Acoustic Ecology Institute’s primary mission is to “translate” complex science and regulatory developments for the general public. AEI does not engage in direct advocacy activities, though our work is inspired by a desire to encourage mindful and respectful co-habitation with other species, and to further our society’s re-integration with the natural world.  Toward this end, AEI’s Special Reports, News Digest, and lay summaries of new research, along with our ongoing conversations with agency managers, researchers, the press, NGOs, and industry and Navy staff, focus on clearly understanding the state of current science, and providing integration and context to help the public and press cultivate informed understanding of the issues. 


Behavioral Impacts Become the Primary Concern
Navy Sonar EIS contention
Moderate noise disrupts feeding
NMFS and Navy develop new ways to address behavioral impacts
New noise sources trigger concerns: wind farms, subsea oil processing, stress, MPAs, polar bears

Naval Active Sonars
Supreme Court case doesn’t preclude more challenges
NRDC, Navy settle programmatic MFA challenge
LFAS limited to western Pacific; Navy moves to expand to other oceans
Key new research in 2008

Regulatory Developments
Shipping noise enters regulatory radar
Oil and gas exploration and development: Alaska, Atlantic coast OCS

Ocean Noise Studies Enter New Phase
Big picture reviews
Some scientists speak forcefully for stronger regulation of noise
Research Priorities: US, EU agencies address future directions

Among the most interesting things to watch for in 2009 are:

  • 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 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 lack of food (there are indications that these sorts of synergistic impacts do occur in terrestrial species).

[Read or Download the 29-page AEI Spotlight Report: Ocean Noise 2008]

Or, here's the quick version, courtesy of, where you, too, can plug in all the text from any document or web page and generate a "word picture" of the content, based solely on how often each word appears. Below is the Wordle for the full Ocean Noise 2008 report. It would be interesting to see how the prominent words change from year to year; I'm surprised that "behavioral" isn't bigger...but am glad to see "research" and "may" appearing prominently!

See AEI's Gallery at Worldle for more images, in a larger size.



Links for more detailed information

The Acoustic Ecology Institute is the most comprehensive national clearinghouse for information on sound and the environment.  We focus largely on ocean noise and public lands management, and also have smaller programs dedicated to education and the interface between science and sound art.  AEI’s website offers a wide spectrum of reliable information, including links to websites for advocates on all sides of key issues.  Our online Special Reports are designed to offer a solid “ten minute version” on key issues, with links to source material and more in-depth information.

To receive occasional news updates (3-4 times/year), contact Jim Cummings

Lay summaries of recent research 
Studies from 2008 are summarized; similar pages available for 2004-7, and recent results.

AEI News Digest 
The latest updates on continuing issues, new research, and other sound-related news; with links to original press reports

AEI Special Report on naval active sonars 
Includes information on the differences between systems, news updates, effects on wildlife, and links to government and NGO resources.

AEI Special Reports index 
Links to Special Reports on all topics, including snowmobile and OHV management, noise effects of coalbed methane development, and ocean topics, including annual IWC Scientific Committee meetings.

AEI’s Home Page 
Coverage of ocean, wildlands, urban issues, as well as recent science and comprehensive resource links (research programs, advocacy organizations, government agencies).
The most important entries in the AEI News Digest and AEI lay summaries of new research are compiled here in blog/feed format, for delivery via RSS or email.

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