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AEI Spotlight Report

Ocean Noise 2009:
Science, Policy, Legal Developments


2009 was a relatively calm year in the world of ocean noise, as compared to the past couple of years, which saw legal fireworks culminating in a Supreme Court sonar ruling, a series of comprehensive reports from agencies in the US and EU, and a noticeable increase in marine scientists urging more caution in our use of noise in the sea. See AEI’s previous annual reports for more on all that excitement; this year’s recap focuses more on emerging themes that reflect the ongoing maturation of the field of ocean acoustics, as agencies, NGOs, and major ocean “noise-makers” focus more on solutions than on arguments.

Even as the dramatic but relatively rare sonar-related strandings occupied public and legal center-stage over the past few years, scientists and agency staff, as well as many NGOs, have been putting most of their attention on the far more widespread effects of chronic and moderate anthropogenic (human- created) noise. Much of the environmental concern about the current round of Navy sonar EISs focuses not on potential strandings and deaths of a few animals, but on properly assessing the effects of these exercises of thousands of animals that will be close enough to hear and change their behavior in response to sonar signals. Likewise, nearly all the concerns about seismic surveys have settled down to questions about behavioral responses of populations exposed to surveys noise on a regular basis, or during biologically important times of year.

The most widespread source of chronic ocean noise is clearly global shipping. Three years ago, the possible biological effects of shipping noise were just beginning to appear on the radar of regulators and the shipping industry; in 2009, the world’s primary forum for agreements on shipping standards, the International Maritime Organization, began formally addressing the question. A series of international workshops have opened up lines of inquiry and dialogue that seem to hold real promise of actually reversing the steady rise in the ocean’s background ambient noise that has accompanied increases in global shipping since the 1960s.

The most exciting development in 2009, though, took place outside the regulatory arena. After several years of preliminary research and prototype testing, passive acoustic monitoring has come of age. A high-profile project in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary continues to lead the way, generating ground-breaking visualizations of the acoustic ecologies of ships and whales outside Boston harbor, while a steady stream of new research techniques and technologies have generated ever-cheaper platforms for short and long-term listening at sea. The result of all this will be a vast increase in our ability to know where human sounds are most problematic, and what areas are most important to marine species.

This AEI Spotlight Report will get you up to speed on each of these important topics, and look ahead at the likely themes of 2010’s research, regulatory, and legal developments in the realm of ocean noise.



Naval active sonars

Navy continues to roll out EISs for training ranges New instrumented range off Florida faces challenges

Seismic surveys

Academic surveys trigger oversized outrage
Oil and gas industry surveys continue unfettered; increasing environmental focus from industry

Shipping noise

AEI Resource Collection: Shipping noise symposia and reports, 2005-2009

The revolution in passive acoustic monitoring

New research opportunities, new questions that can be asked
AEI Resource Collection: Platforms for remote recording

Research briefs, 2009

What to keep an eye (ear) on in 2010

About the Acoustic Ecology Institute

[Read or Download the 45-page AEI Spotlight Report: Ocean Noise 2009]

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 2009 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.


About the Acoustic Ecology Institute

The Acoustic Ecology Institute was incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in 2004. Since then, AEI has developed a reputation as an honest broker of information and resources regarding sound-related environmental issues. Generally steering clear of advocacy-oriented activities, AEI focuses on providing clear information on science and policy issues via a news digest, lay summaries of new research, and a series of comprehensive special reports on key topics, all available free of charge at and Our work on ocean noise issues has garnered enthusiastic responses from top agency staff and field researchers, journalists, NGOs, Navy staff, and oil and gas industry managers.

AEI is primarily the work of Jim Cummings, a writer and editor who has covered environmental, science, and socially responsible investing topics since the early 1980s. He was an invited plenary speaker at the Alberta oil and gas noise control conference in 2007 and 2009, and an invited participant and presenter for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans expert committee on Seismic Survey Mitigation Effectiveness in 2009. In 2007, he was the guest editor of a special double issue on Ocean Noise for the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy.

For more on AEI, see

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

Lay summaries of recent research 
Studies from 2009 are summarized; similar pages available for 2004-8, and recent results.
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.

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).

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