Five years ago, the US led an effort to have the International Maritime Organization address the increasing problem of shipping noise as a contributor to the ocean’s rising background ambient noise levels, which reduces the effective communication area for many species of ocean life. The first couple of years were promising, beginning with the creation of a “high priority work programme” to be undertaken by a special Correspondence Group. The first report of the correspondence group, submitted in spring of 2009, along with a submission from IFAW and Friends of the Earth that identified the likelihood that the bulk of shipping noise comes from a small percentage of the noisiest ships of each size, laid the groundwork for rapid adoption of the proposed voluntary guidelines for ship quieting.
This year’s IMO newsletter, though, tells the sad bureaucratic story of how these sorts of initiatives can wither on the vine. The Marine Environmental Protection Committee this year merely “reaffirmed the previous agreement that non-binding technical guidelines designed to reduce the incidental introduction of underwater noise from commercial shipping, be developed as a means to reduce the potential adverse impacts of this noise on marine life. The Committee agreed to keep this item on its agenda for MEPC 64.” It appears that the Ship Design and Equipment Subcommittee has been charged with the task of drafting the voluntary guidelines, but their report makes no mention of this work.
During the 2000’s, NOAA made great strides in acknowledging the central role that shipping noise plays in any consideration of ocean noise management; it were these efforts that led to the initial impetus to get the IMO, which regulates global shipping, to begin to address it. It’s sad to see how easily such efforts can lose steam. Perhaps we can take heart from a statement made by IMO spokeswoman Natasha Brown after the release of a study this spring that linked stress levels in whales to ocean noise: “The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO, when it meets for its 63rd session, will review a number of submissions relating to noise from commercial shipping and its adverse impact on marine life. The MEPC has previously agreed on a need to develop non-binding, technical guidelines and consider solutions to reduce the incidental introduction of underwater noise from commercial shipping, so the issue is very much on the IMO’s agenda and governments are welcome to submit relevant information and/or report to MEPC.” While it appears that the MEPC did not actively engage the issue this year, it is indeed still on their radar, though perhaps not as brightly as it was a few years back.
For more on the glory days of efforts to address shipping noise, see the AEI’s Ocean Noise 2009 Special Report, pages 18-23.