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Trumpistas target NOAA’s ocean noise oversight

Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, Sonar No Comments »

Tip o’ the hat to longtime partner in crime Ocean Conservation Research for catching this insult to the ears of whales, seals, fish, and crustaceans. As part of its hatchet-wielding rampage through America’s regulatory arena, the Trump administration has gone beyond “merely” making plans to re-open the Arctic to drilling and issue new permits for seismic surveys off the Atlantic coast (both of which will doubtlessly engender legal challenge). Now they’ve also come for us!

The recent Presidential Executive Order Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy explicitly calls for the Secretary of Commerce to “take all steps permitted by law to rescind or revise” NOAA’s Technical Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing.  This planning document was the result of many years of collaboration among regulators, research scientists, environmental organizations, and the primary ocean noise-makers (oil and gas interests and the Navy).  As OCR’s Michael Stocker notes, “All of this work threatened with a stroke of a pen…”

There’s nothing in the NOAA Guidance document that would stop, or even slow, current oil and gas exploration or Navy testing and training activities. It more or less serves as a formal declaration of the current state of the science and a framework within which further research can be prioritized and carried out. Most importantly, the Guidance provides a one-stop source for physical and behavioral thresholds that are used to determine noise impacts when applying for new permits. Indeed, wiping it from the books would do little more than complicate the compliance efforts of the Navy and oil and gas industry as they plan future activities, as well as NOAA’s legally-mandated environmental assessments. Yet another case of the bull in a china chop approach to governing.

Shipping industry embracing voluntary noise guidelines

News, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Turning science into policy is a long, slow road.  The 2004 launch of the Acoustic Ecology Institute more or less coincided with the emergence of shipping noise as an environmental concern; symposia held by the National Marine Fisheries Service (now NOAA Fisheries) in 2004 and the Marine Mammal Commission in 2005 marked the start of growing scientific awareness that moderate chronic noise may be a bigger issue for marine life than the loud, transient sounds of sonar and airguns.  AEI has focused on this key question from the start in special reports and our ongoing news/science coverage.

In 2014, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) completed an at times sluggish six-year process and adopted voluntary noise reduction guidelines for large ships. Since then, the pace seems to be picking up as the shipping industry, port authorities, and eco-certification programs have all begun embracing the need to slow or reverse the long-term trends of increasing shipping noise in most of the world’s oceans.

This month, the port industry trade magazine Port Strategy included a long feature article that brings the story up to date.  Among the new and encouraging developments is the work of Green Marine, a sustainability-certification outfit that works with 28 shipping companies and 38 ports in the US and Canada, including biggies like Seattle and New Orleans.  After partnering with Transport Canada last year on a review of the current state of science in Understanding Anthropogenic Noise, Green Marine has now announced shipping-noise criteria that will be rolled out this year as a voluntary add-on for shipping companies that are part of their certification program, then will become a mandatory element of the Green Marine certification in 2018.  The 5-stage criterion is modest to start, with increasing degrees of commitment (it’s unclear whether companies are expected to continually deepen their commitments, or not).  The exciting news is that shipping companies are voluntarily committing to go beyond what’s required by current regulations; Green Marine Executive Director David Bolduc says:

“It is important to underline that the maritime companies and ports that are certified by Green Marine have voluntarily accepted to adopt the new underwater noise evaluation criteria with no regulations obliging them to do so. These participants made the commitment to address the issue more easily. For others, it was a relatively new issue; they needed to learn about noise, its sources, its potential impacts, and the mitigation measures.

“The indicator is a great tool to help them understand underwater noise and, most importantly, address this emerging issue. [It] is the result of collaboration among the industry, environmental organisations, the scientific community, and government representatives. Two intensive years of research and discussions were necessary to develop the five-level criteria.”

Meanwhile, following up on an AEI note from January, the Port of Vancouver’s inclusion of quiet ship guidelines as part of its reduced-fee Eco-Action initiative has generated its first takers: “We’ve heard anecdotally from some vessel sectors that they plan to upgrade their fleets to meet the new incentive standards,” says the port. “In the first quarter of 2017, two vessels have applied and been awarded a bronze level discount.”

And in the US, NOAA released an Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap in late 2016 that will become the framework for ongoing research and management of ocean noise, including an emphasis on managing acoustic habitat.  All this points to the next decade becoming a real turning point, as the past fifteen years of increasing awareness is channeled into constructive action to begin reducing our noise footprint in the seas.

 

 

SoCal shipping noise: risk and opportunity sites in whale habitat

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

AEI lay summary of
Redfern JV, Hatch LT, Caldow C, DeAngelis ML and others (2017) Assessing the risk of chronic shipping noise to baleen whales off Southern California, USA. Endang Species Res 32:153-167. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00797 (open access)

A paper published earlier this year (on my birthday; what a nice present!) takes a close look at shipping noise levels along the Santa Barbara/Los Angeles coast, with particular attention to key habitat areas for several whale species. This region of offshore waters includes crucial feeding zones on the edge of the continental shelf, as well as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary; meanwhile, some of the shipping traffic headed into the port of Long Beach (near LA) passes between the Sanctuary and the coastline.

The pictures generated by the authors surely qualify for the thousand-words designation, so I’ll let these key graphics tell most of the story—you can click any image to see a larger version.  First up, here’s the number of ship transits occurring in these waters over five months (August to November 2009):

Next, here’s how the accumulated noise of all these ships translates into sound levels. The researchers modeled the sound levels at two different frequencies; this is because the 50Hz band is especially important to blue and fin whales, while the 100Hz band is most important to humpback whales. Note that at both frequencies, there are some areas that remain relatively protected from the worst of the shipping noise. Read the rest of this entry »

Oil companies spurn Trump’s enthusiasm for Arctic oil, gas

News, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

Despite the noises coming from the Trump administration and Alaska’s elected officials, it appears that any new initiatives to expand offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic will be falling on deaf ears among fossil fuel companies.

“We think there is almost no rationale for Arctic exploration,” Goldman Sachs commodity expert Michele Della Vigna said in late March. “Immensely complex, expensive projects like the Arctic we think can move too high on the cost curve to be economically doable.” Indeed, unless oil again approaches $100 a barrel, these areas are likely to be ignored; just last year, oil companies gave up on hundreds of leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas that they had spent $2.5 billion to acquire back when prices were high enough to justify their plans there.

Despite President Trump’s oft-repeated pledge to open up America’s “vast untapped domestic energy reserves,” the fact is that even without the offshore Arctic or the Atlantic coast (both excluded from new leasing from 2017-2022 by the Obama administration), the areas already open to offshore development “make available more than 70% of the economically recoverable resources, which is ample opportunity for oil and gas development to meet the nation’s energy needs.”

For more details, and maps of the Arctic and Atlantic leasing areas, see this AEInews report from January 2017.
UPDATE, 4/28: Just after writing this, notice of the latest Trump Executive Order crossed my desk, this one explicitly targeting the offshore areas removed from the 2017-2022 lease sales by Obama’s team. Meanwhile, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill to re-open Arctic waters; and for added freakiness factor, a NC Congresswoman has introduced a bill to force a lease sale within a year, and exempting this effort from NEPA (ie EIS) provisions for five years!  If any of these proceed into action on leasing, no doubt a court challenge will ensue, centered on the presumed non-reversibility of Obama’s last-month actions.
UPDATE, 5/2: This is encouraging news: the Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of a vast area of the Alaskan ice shelf as critical habitat for polar bears.  The oil and gas industry argued that its short-term activities should not be limited by concerns over longer-term global warming; ie that their ships, drilling, etc. are not in and of themselves responsible for any global warming.  The lower court ruling is not necessarily based on on the idea that oil and gas development should be stopped in the name of climate caution; rather, it simply upholds the FWS contention that the ice shelf is threatened by warming, and that this habit should be spared further intrusions in order to maximize the chances that the polar bears can survive. It’s reassuring that the current Supreme Court was not interested in pushing back against such climate-driven policies.

Warming spurs new 400km undersea sound channel in Arctic

News, Ocean, Science, shipping, Sonar No Comments »

Beaufort icebreaker cropIn yet another unforeseen consequence of global warming, scientists have begun charting the extent of a new underwater sound channel in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. As recently as the 1970’s, the water here was coldest just below the ice, but in recent decades two warmer layers have developed, one in the first 50 meters of water, and the second at around 200 meters deep.  Since sound in water tends toward the coldest layers, it used to be dissipated by the rough bottom side of the ice, but now it’s reflected between the warm layers and travels much farther. Research in 2014 and 2016 documented sound transmission across 400 kilometers (250 miles), four times farther than before the emergence of this channel, dubbed the Beaufort Lens.

The near-surface has been warmed by an increased flow of meltwater from rivers and by larger ice-free areas exposed to the sun; this slightly warmer surface water has long been present in summer, but used to disappear in winter.  Meanwhile, warmer waters entering the Beaufort from the North Pacific through the Bering Strait (and perhaps even from the Atlantic, through northern Canada) have contributed to the growth of the deeper warm layer. As is the case for most ocean noise research, the US Navy is a key funder; they’re interested in how increased noise transmission might “dramatically impact the effectiveness of sonar operations.”

The full extent of the Beaufort Lens sound channel is not yet known; further research is planned in the spring of 2018. The area affected is likely to vary with annual changes in the influx of warmer waters and to expand over time as longer-term climate change progresses. Increased shipping traffic is projected to be a major factor in rising ocean noise levels in the Arctic over the coming decades; oil and gas exploration could add to the din if the offshore oil industry rethinks its abandonment of these waters in recent years. In addition, general background noise in some areas could also increase thanks to longer-range transmission of whale calls, which have always been one of the primary sources of ambient sound in these waters.

Much ado about not much in Obama’s offshore oil bans

News, Ocean, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

While I was certainly glad to hear that President Obama has declared most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the Alaskan arctic “indefinitely off limits” to oil and gas development, the roar of approval from the media and environmentally-minded public was louder than the action actually merits. And the Atlantic withdrawals appear next to meaningless. I know we should never look a gift horse in the mouth, but even a quick glance reveals more gum than enamel in this one. Nonetheless, I’ll take an over-enthusiastic celebratory shout over even the fading ghost of the chance of much more enduring and disruptive roars from seismic surveys, crazy-loud engines on stabilized drilling platforms, and decades of crew transport and tanker traffic. It’s not for nothing that diverse group of scientists and activists have been calling on Obama to do just this for the past couple of years.

Still, I’m here to temper the joy. Before looking at the maps that put the modest impact of this move in perspective, there’s a red flag right up top that deserves a bit more clarification. All commenters, enviros and energy companies alike, seem to agree that this withdrawal is more consequential than the November announcement by the Department of Interior that no lease sales would be offered in either the Arctic or Atlantic for the upcoming 2017-2022 leasing period, a decision that’s won’t be finalized until July and could have been vulnerable to reversal by the incoming administration. Obama’s new declaration likely closes the door on such a rapid reconsideration of these upcoming five-year plans. But notice that the magic word in the withdrawals is “indefinitely,” not “permanently.” It seems that the door is left open to reconsideration: the White House statement detailing the withdrawal states that the “indefinitely off limits” designation is “to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.” (To be fair, the text is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this 5-year review applies to both the US and Canadian actions, or just the latter.)

UPDATE, 1/11/17: The outgoing administration tied up a worrisome loose end this week by denying six pending applications to do exploratory seismic surveys in the Mid- and South-Atlantic planning areas. This is a one-time denial; future re-applications can be considered at any time. New surveys will be necessary to inform any future lease sales in these areas.

So for now, let’s celebrate that at least the first term of a Trump administration has its hands fairly well tied in its ambitions to expand US offshore oil production from its current focus on the Gulf of Mexico and in a 200 mile strip of waters along Alaska’s Arctic coast. Wait, what’s that? Yep, the big withdrawal announcement doesn’t remove any of the areas already being actively developed off Alaska’s northern shores (brown in this map):

artic-obama-withdrawal-map

The good news is that there are currently only a handful of producing wells in that brown strip, on three of the five lease areas owned by one company, Hilcorp, just offshore from Deadhorse (they’re the tiny green areas in the next map, below). In fact, out of the peak of 480 lease tracts in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that had been acquired by energy companies as of 2008, only 43 leases (including 53 lease blocks) are still even nominally in the planning pipeline; 42 of them are in this area that remains available to future leasing as well. Falling oil prices, disappointing test well production, and both logistical and increased regulatory hurdles have led many of the companies that were once so enthused about moving into these waters to formally abandon their leases.

Here’s a look at where things stood as recently as July 2015, when the Chukchi was still the focus of industry hopes and dreams: Read the rest of this entry »

Good news and bad news on BC shipping traffic

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

British Columbia has been a hotspot of concern—and research—about the extent and the impacts of shipping noise. The southern BC coast is close to acoustic saturation, with any increase in noise having the potential to completely overwhelm the underwater soundscape; meanwhile the northern coast holds a few areas that are still nearly free of human noise intrusion, and we need to do all we can to preserve these increasingly rare acoustic refuges. These contentious waters have been roiled in several contradictory though perhaps ultimately productive ways by recent Canadian government actions. In the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a northern pipeline was rejected and a southern one approved; meanwhile, ongoing research aims to identify the noisiest ships and help inform new regulations that could reduce overall noise levels.

bc-tanker-vanc-to-burnabysmThe biggest headlines and fears have been spurred by the final approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion that will deliver oil from the Alberta tar sands to an existing port in Burnaby, BC. The port currently hosts about five tankers a month; the increased flow in the expanded pipeline (75% the capacity as the proposed Keystone XL) will necessitate about 35 ships a month, meaning an average of two tanker transits a day past Vancouver as they travel to and from the Strait of Georgia off the coast. These waters are currently burdened by shipping noise 85% of the time, and the increased traffic will push this to 100% in some areas. Concern centers on the tenuous status of the region’s orca populations, which are struggling to find the salmon they need; shipping noise makes it harder for them to track salmon with their echolocation clicks and to communicate with each other as they search for food. “Death by a thousand cuts, and this is a very deep cut,” says Deborah Giles, research director for the Center for Whale Research. “They’re spending more energy to find less food and we’re adding the equivalent of a rock concert,” she says. “These whales will not survive.”

Environmental groups will likely file suit challenging the approval, citing the government’s failure to mitigate the increased impact. At the same time, though, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Transport Minister Marc Garneau are working on a revamped recovery plan for the 80 remaining resident orcas.  LeBlanc notes that  Read the rest of this entry »

Humpback bottom-feeding is (somewhat) affected by shipping noise

Ocean, Science, Sonar No Comments »

AEI lay summary of:  Blair HB, Merchant ND, Friedlaender AS, Wiley DN, Parks SE. 2016. Evidence for ship noise impacts on humpback whale foraging behaviour. Biol. Lett. 12: 20160005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2016.0005

Sand lance 350pA new study looks for the first time at the impact of human noise on an important type of humpback whale foraging activity, bottom-feeding on sand lance.  The research took place in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the southern Gulf of Maine, where humpback whales routinely do deep dives at night, rolling to their sides when they reach the bottom to forage for the small fish.

To assess the whales’ responses to human noise, D-Tags were placed on ten individuals over the course of two years.  These temporary suction-cup tags record received sound levels that the animal is hearing, as well as tracking the details of their dives.  The tagged whales made 218 dives, 83 with ship noise exposure and 135 without ships nearby.

Here’s an example of the sort of picture that the D-tags can provide:

Blair 2016 Humpback side roll Dtag track plot

The results show a 29% decrease in the number of “bottom side-roll feeding events” as the received level of the ship noise increased, as well as a 13-14% decrease in both the descent and ascent rate of the dives.  Interestingly, the increase in received noise level was rather small overall (received level was higher when ship noise was present, but not statistically significantly higher), perhaps indicating that the ships were, on average, not all that close.  As is typical, the team used advanced statistical techniques to tease out modest effects from the subtle and varied data. (In case you’re wondering, they used “linear mixed-effects models” with data “square root transformed to approximate normality,” then calculated effects by “summing Akaike weights of all models.” Sounds good to me!)

The raw numbers put the effects into some more straightforward perspective.   Read the rest of this entry »

Belugas struggling in Cook Inlet, St. Lawrence rivers

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science 2 Comments »

Two troubling reports have surfaced regarding beluga whale populations in waters that have become increasingly industrialized and noisy in recent years.  In Quebec’s Saguenay River, the major river system draining into the St. Lawrence, recent years have seen a sharp uptick in dead beluga babies and pregnant mothers; in 2015, these sensitive individuals were half of all known mortalities.  Increased noise is the primary culprit; according to the CBC, “The researchers are working from the theory that beluga calves have soft calls, which may be drowned out by the noise from ships, ferries and boats in the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers.”

In Alaska’s Cook Inlet, beluga range has shrunk dramatically over the past couple of decades (see map below), and accelerated in recent years, as ongoing port construction and oil and gas development has introduced increasing levels of noise into these key waters.  It’s unclear whether the smaller range is simply a reflection of a reduced local population, meaning they don’t need to range so far to avoid competing with each other for food, or if they are responding to the increasing chronic noise.  See previous AEInews coverage of the Cook Inlet belugas here.  Recent NMFS research papers on the changes can be accessed at this link, and this in-depth article from a couple years back is a good overview of the current development and research activities.

Beluga range Cook Inlet 1978-2014

Marine invertebrates also affected by ocean noise

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, shipping No Comments »

Some of the most interesting new work in ocean noise is revealing the myriad ways that humanity’s sounds can have negative impacts on ocean life other than marine mammals.  Sure, everyone loves our warm-blooded kin, but there’s way more to the ocean ecosystem than dolphins, humpbacks, and seals.  AEInews has been covering this leading edge for years (see these posts on shellfish larvae, crabs, and squid).  Recently, at the triannual Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life conference, held this year in Dublin, a slew of new papers revealed further concerns.

blue-banded_hermit_crabThis post from NRDC summarizes the highlights.  One of the most striking findings was that 6 hours of shipping noise can damage the DNA in the cells of mussels, perhaps due to a stress response; similarly, protein structures in the sensory cells of cuttlefish were damaged by low-frequency noise.  These would be some of the most profound impacts yet discovered; note, though, that the brief summary here does not specify the sound levels—some research on health effects use much higher exposures than are likely in the wild, as a way of identifying possible effects for further study at lower exposure levels.  Other new studies followed on previous ones that suggest many animals respond to noise as if it were a predator; these responses often suggest increased stress, and are waste of precious energy, or disrupt feeding.  Also of note is a one-off anecdotal observation (not yet studied systematically) of a hermit crab exiting its shell after exposure to low-freqency sound; it appeared to be examining its shell, perhaps trying to determine the source of the disruption, or checking for physical damage. While out of its shell, it would be vulnerable to predation.

All this new research is both exciting, as it reveals the vast and subtle role of sound in the natural world, and sobering in facing us with the widespread consequences of our heedless sonic intrusions into wild ecosystems.

 

New court ruling on Navy sonar has big implications

News, Ocean, Sonar No Comments »

A new court ruling could fundamentally change the standards that the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service have been using to regulate Navy sonar, by requiring more areas to be set aside as off-limits to the Navy’s routine peacetime operations.  A federal appeals court has ruled that simply determining that Navy activities will have “negligible impact” on populations is not sufficient; regulators must also, and separately, set standards for sonar use that assure the “least practicable adverse impact” on marine mammals and their habitats.  (Download the ruling; it’s only 35 pages, not a bad read!)  As those who have been following the evolution of the NMFS’s ongoing cycle of five-year authorizations for Navy activities will know, the routine procedure has been to dutifully tally the numbers of animals that may be affected—generally they predict relatively few injuries or deaths (more when explosives training is involved), as well as behavioral effects on millions of animals—and then to determine that the long term effects on each species’ population levels will be negligible.  This negligible-impact finding then allows NMFS to issue permits allowing for the predicted effects.

NMFS has been presuming that negligible impact is sufficient to also satisfy the requirement for “least practicable impact.”  Their basic argument was that you can’t get a lower impact than negligible.  However, there were a couple of flaws in this approach.  First, the threshold for population-level effects in this permit was presumed to be 12% of the regional population of any given species being able to hear, and have their behavior potentially changed, by sonar transmissions; clearly, there IS room to reduce this degree of impact.  But more importantly to this court, the NMFS’s approach to determining what areas are “biologically important,” and so worthy of some protection from routine sonar operations, was found to violate the “least practicable impact” standard—and it appears that designating more protected habitat will be essential to meeting this standard.

Note: This court case concerns the SURTASS-LFA low-frequency active sonar, currently deployed on four US surveillance vessels, rather than the mid-frequency active sonar that has been the focus of most of the previous legal wrangling.  This LFA lawsuit challenged routine, peacetime use of the sonar worldwide; by contrast, all the mid-frequency challenges up til now have only sought to constrain testing and training activities in Naval training ranges off the US coasts, not its widespread routine use by over a hundred Navy ships around the world.  So this case has a limited immediate scope, though the underlying theme of setting aside more areas as off-limits is a core element of all the sonar and naval training legal challenges, and this new clarification by the courts on the separate requirement for “least practicable impact” could apply to all NMFS permitting.  

This court ruling does not prescribe a new management plan; it merely found that the current one does not meet the letter of the law.  This case is now remanded back to the district court for further deliberation.  However, we are approaching the end of the 5-year authorizations that have been challenged here (2012-2017), so the most likely consequence of this ruling is that the NEXT round of authorizations, due in 2017, will need to take more care in meeting the “least practicable impact” standard, either by expanding the areas off-limits to sonar, or by more adequately justifying why NMFS feels they are meeting this standard in other ways.

An apparently deciding factor in the court ruling was a 2010 white paper written by four NMFS “subject matter experts,” Read the rest of this entry »

AEI presentation at Ecoacoustics 2016

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, Wildlands 1 Comment »

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:

Saving High-quality Acoustic Habitat: Identifying areas of relative natural quiet by Jim Cummings

Top researchers urge US to hold off on Atlantic seismic surveys

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

Oceana Right Whale map250WEBIn 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.

Oceana Essential Habitat Map Atlantic500WEB

Taming ship traffic in the warming Arctic

News, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

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.

Pew report-2014 ship tracksCROP

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.

 

Using gliders to listen for whales 24/7

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science No Comments »

gliderWEBOver 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.

This spring the Canadian WHaLE project (Whales, Habitat, and Listening Experiment) is expanding to the west coast. For three weeks, a six-foot glider will explore waters off Vancouver Island.

“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.

New maps offer more detail to ocean planners about how animal concentrations change during the year

Ocean, Science No Comments »

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.

baleen two seasonsWEB500

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 »

1st recordings from deepest spot in ocean: whales, typhoon, ships

Ocean, Science No Comments »

challenger deepWEB250A 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.”

deep graphic WEB500They 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.

 

New gas port proposals adding injury to insult in BC

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

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.

Pacific Northwest LNG and Prince Rupert LNG dredging map -Skeena Wild Conservation Trust Ocean Ecology-850x720Now, 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.

eelgrass sockeyeSMFlora 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.

Lelu locationWEB

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?

Ocean listening stations sprouting around US

Bioacoustics, Default, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

NOAA NRS_Stations_plus Cordell BankA 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.

cordellThe 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?

New paper pinpoints “opportunity sites” for acoustic habitat protection near proposed oil sands shipping route

Bioacoustics, 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.

A WEB  B WEB  c WEB

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.

humpback opportunityWhile 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.

 

 

Navy agrees to exclusion zones for sonar, explosives training

News, Sonar No Comments »

mapsWEBAfter 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.

Seabed mining inches forward

Human impacts, Ocean 1 Comment »

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:

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 12.10.38 PM

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.

Oil industry noise headed for arctic waters

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

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).

BeaufortChukchiLease2008WEBlg

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 »

Seabed mining: is 35 miles too close to whale nursery?

Ocean, Ocean energy No Comments »

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:

dredge boatWhat’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).

area mapSpurred 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 »

2011 stranding blamed on Royal Navy bomb explosions

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean No Comments »

bomb site and kyleIn 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 »