Cape Cod Times: NOAA Addresses Impact of Man-Made Noise on Marine Animals

September 15, 2016

NOAA Addresses Impact of Man-Made Noise on Marine Animals
By Mary Ann Bragg, September 15, 2016

A new effort by federal officials to focus on how underwater, man-made sounds affect marine animals like the North Atlantic right whales and humpbacks that visit Cape Cod Bay has earned local praise.

At least one marine mammal advocacy group worries, though, that the plans don’t go far enough given more potential for industry in the ocean, including drilling for oil in the mid-Atlantic.

“There are enough studies showing how whales are being impacted by noise,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation organization, which has an office in Plymouth. “The question is, will this go far enough? When you actually go through it, how much is it going to make a significant difference?”

On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its new “Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap” to help all parts of the agency implement a strategy for addressing growing levels of ocean noise over the next 10 years. The NOAA effort to better focus on the effects of ocean noise on marine animals and their habitats began in 2010, leading to four broad goals: reduce gaps in knowledge about the effects of ocean noise; better management to minimize acute, chronic and the cumulative effects of noise; develop publicly available tools to help the agency make decisions; and launch a public education campaign. The road map lays out a 10-year strategy to address the problem and suggests ways to achieve a better understanding and management of the effects of ocean noise, according to NOAA.

A public comment period on a draft version of the road map resulted in about 85,000 responses, according to NOAA records.

“The whole business of the effects of sound on marine animals, and that includes marine mammals but is not exclusive to marine mammals, is very poorly understood,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, North Atlantic right whale habitat expert at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. “That said, most of us suspect that underwater sound at some level has a very substantial impact on things like behavior, which might be the capacity to communicate and interact with other animals of the same species. It’s an area that many of us are concerned about.”

While marine animals have used underwater sound for millions of year for navigation, finding prey, avoiding predators and other activities, the underwater environment has changed dramatically in the last one hundred to 150 years due to human activities, according to Jason Gedamke, ocean acoustics program manager for NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology. Those human activities include the use of propeller-driven ships, construction and industrialization, Gedamke said.

“Sound has the ability to travel literally halfway around the world,” he said

But there is limited scientific data, and more information is needed, Gedamke said. As a start, NOAA has deployed 11 acoustic sensors off the East and West coasts, with a 12th one to be deployed within days, to monitor trends in low-frequency underwater noise, NOAA officials said. Those lower frequencies are heavily used by many acoustically sensitive species in the Northeast, including cod and haddock as well as endangered baleen whales like humpbacks, fins and right whales, said marine ecologist Leila Hatch at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Stellwagen Bank is an 842-square-mile underwater reserve north of Cape Cod.

There are two of the acoustic sensors in New England waters, including one in shallow water in the Stellwagen sanctuary, and another in deep water much farther offshore, Hatch said. The second sensor is within the boundaries of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which was designated by President Barack Obama on Thursday.

The data obtained from the sensors can shed light on the many different and ongoing sources of sound that affect the “acoustic habitats” that NOAA seeks to protect, Hatch said. Researchers need the data to design ways to better protect these habitats, she said.

The road map, written in four sections, reviews what NOAA has done so far with the impact of ocean noise; establishes a foundation for understanding and managing acoustic habitats for species and places; reviews the agency’s current scientific abilities and makes recommendations for expansion; and applies risk assessment to make decisions.

“NOAA’s ocean noise strategy outlines several approaches that we can take with other federal and nonfederal partners to reduce how noise affects the species and places we manage,” said W. Russell Callender, assistant NOAA administrator for its National Ocean Service. “It also showcases the importance that places like national marine sanctuaries have as sentinel sites in building our understanding of ocean noise impacts.”

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Reprinted via Cape Cod Times - the News Service is not affiliated with the Alliance.