Lawmakers, NRDC: Protect Marine Mammals from Hearing Damage

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for PGS01125.jpg

For whales, hearing loss is a serious health problem.  This is because they use sound for virtually everything they do to survive in the wild—to feed, find mates, avoid predators, maintain bonds, and orient themselves in the darkness of the sea. 

Over the past few years, a number of lines of research have shown that whales and other marine mammals are far more susceptible to hearing loss from loud human activities than the government had assumed.  So we pressed NOAA, the agency in charge of whale protection, to overhaul the decades-old standards it has used to assess harm. 

Unfortunately, the new standards NOAA has proposed would continue to grossly underestimate the impacts of underwater noise—including from the Navy’s extensive sonar training off California and Hawaii, and from the high-energy airgun surveys that the administration is now poised to permit from New Jersey down to Florida.

Last week, a group of Congressional representatives urged the administration to take a protective approach, noting that federal marine mammal law requires it.  “As NOAA is well aware,” they wrote, “Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act with the explicit aim of ‘protect[ing] essential habitats… for each species of marine mammal from the adverse effect of man’s actions.’  Today there is little doubt that noise produced from human activity can have a devastating impact on marine mammal populations, causing temporary and permanent hearing loss, disruption of mating and feeding, abandonment of habitat, and even death.” 

NRDC also submitted extensive comments last week on behalf of a number of conservation groups.  Among many other points, we observed that the new standards, though an improvement on the old, rely heavily on hearing data from older animals in a noisy bay, which appear far less sensitive than whales and dolphins tested elsewhere. 

The question is whether the administration will take the conservative approach that the law demands—or continue to turn a deaf ear.

Photo: A vessel trolling a seismic airgun array, which blasts the water every 10-12 seconds with high-intensity noise.  Credit: PGS.