As if the world’s marine animals didn’t have enough to worry about — with climate change, ocean acidification, and overfishing threatening their existence — emerging research over the past several decades has also suggested that devastating “noise pollution” could be invisibly destroying their habitats. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released a first of its kind roadmap for researching and managing the impact of ocean noise on marine life.
Why is this so important? We’ve learned in recent decades that marine animals rely on sound to communicate with one another, navigate the waters, and generally understand their surroundings. Human activity, such as shipping, industrial work, and military exercises, can make it impossible for these majestic creatures to hear the sounds of the ocean that they rely upon to live.
While research has largely focused on the impact this activity has on endangered whales, marine ecologists believe it could affect a much wider variety of organisms, including shrimp, crabs, and sea urchins. The truth is that scientists don’t really understand the scope of the problem, or how many species might be negatively impacted by human-generated noise. Global warming is also exacerbating the problem: sound travels both faster and farther through warm water, meaning that as the sea’s temperature rises, the ocean becomes noisier.
NOAA has taken steps in the past to try to mitigate the impact of noise pollution on endangered species and marine mammals, but until now has handled these instances on a case-by-case basis. Mostly, this involved stopping noisy activities for a few moments when whales were spotted near work sites. This may be mildly helpful at the time, but it doesn’t address the cumulative and pervasive pollutant that noise has become.
The new strategy calls for better protection of the natural soundscape within National Marine Sanctuaries, better use of NOAA’s resources to monitor noise pollution in US waters, better enforcement of marine mammal and endangered species regulations, and the promotion of quieter technologies. The last item is really key to this plan’s success, and might just have the side effect of promoting more sustainable, greener technologies.
Right now, the strategy is simply a draft, and has not formally been adopted. The public is invited to submit comments on the new policies through July 1, 2016.