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European, American Science Foundations Collaborate on Ocean Noise Research Strategies

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An AEI lay summary of the following report:
Marine Board—European Science Foundation. The effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals: A draft research strategy .Coordinating author: Ian Boyd. Contributing authors: Bob Brownell, Doug Cato, Chris Clark, Dan Costa, Peter Evans, Jason Gedamke, Roger Gentry, Bob Gisiner, Jonathan Gordon, Paul Jepson, Patrick Miller, Luke Rendell, Mark Tasker, Peter Tyack, Erin Vos, Hal Whitehead, Doug Wartzok, Walter Zimmer. [DOWNLOAD REPORT(pdf)]

This important report has just been released, though the workshop at which the ideas were originally developed took place in 2005. An all-star cast of researchers from the US and UK gathered the year after an IEEE workshop on the impacts of seismic surveys on marine mammals (a topic also addressed that year at the IWC), to grapple with how best to coordinate and design future research, to assure that we move efficiently toward answering the key questions surrounding the effects of human sound on ocean life. The report states: “There is a need to pursue a vision of future management of marine resources where the expansion of human activities will be accompanied by a sound understanding of the risks and appropriate tools
to mitigate those risks.” Further, “a key message of this report is that it is unlikely that a small number of focused experiments will provide the information necessary to solve most of the major concerns. Instead, one must rely upon an accumulation of evidence combined with a process of objective assessment of this evidence through periodic independent review. Recent efforts have focused upon a review phase in this process (see Cox et al. 2006; Southall et al 2007 and other literature cited in Annex I); there is now a need to achieve a rapid improvement in the state of knowledge by undertaking new research that is focused on specific questions of high priority.”

Acknowledging that most funding sources focus on research that can occur over a relatively short period of time (3-5 years at most), while the key questions (especially concerning population-level effects) can only be answered over much longer timeframes, this report proposes that new research studies be conceived and integrated in the context of a 4-stage process:

  1. Identify the hazard (e.g., what frequencies seem to trigger responses?)
  2. Investigate exposure to the hazard (e.g., where are the whales? how much sound to they experience?)
  3. Look at the dose-response relationship (e.g., how do responses change as sound increases? what levels are physically dangerous? what levels lead to behavioral responses?)
  4. Risk characterization (e.g., how common will physical or behavioral impact be?)
    (which then leads to the final stage, Risk management, investigating the effectiveness of various mitigation and operational changes to reduce the risk)

To provide more concrete examples of the approach they recommend, the report sketches the likely research questions that would unfold over time in three key areas: the effects of active sonar, especially on beaked whales, the effects of seismic surveys on marine mammals, and the effects of shipping noise. In each case, the report details first-layer questions that need to be answered, and then moves to the more detailed studies that could begin to answer these questions. Throughout, there is a keen awareness that one set of research questions must be answered in order to address the next (e.g., we need to know the levels of sound actually being experienced by beaked whales in order to evaluate the responses that are observed, which then will inform studies of longer term impacts on individuals and populations).

This report is highly recommended for NGOs, researchers, and agency personnel. My only reservation about the framework that it puts forward is that it is somewhat limited by the need and goal to focus on step-by-step methodical integration of diffuse data—as is too common, the bottom line is focused on evaluating “vital rates” and “life functions,” which leaves less concrete issues like stress, annoyance, and the underlying ethical question of the relationship between human activities and wild nature out of reach. Yet this is a potentially powerful approach that, were it to be followed through, could provide a useful framework for coordinating research in ways that could accelerate the development of much-needed understanding of the effects of noise on ocean life.


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