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Protect Marine Mammals from Ocean Noise

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Every day marine mammals are threatened or even killed by noise from shipping, seismic oil and gas exploration, and naval sonar. Help us compel industry and the government to turn down the volume.

Experts & Resources

World Oceans Day Comes at a Critical Time for High Seas
Lauren Kubiak

As we celebrate World Oceans Day this year, world leaders, businesses, scientists, and NGOs are gathered in New York at the first ever United Nations Ocean Conference. Threats to the ocean—including acidification from excessive carbon emissions, pollution, and overexploitation—continue to mount, but at the Ocean Conference, there is strong evidence that political will is building to reverse the degradation of the ocean.

“The health of our oceans and seas requires us to put aside short-term national gain, to avoid long-term global catastrophe,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during the conference opening on Monday.

So far, in connection with the Conference, over 1000 countries, organizations, and stakeholders have made commitments to improve the health of the oceans. In sessions on sustainable fisheries, ocean acidification, and marine pollution, there is a steady and consistent drumbeat from nations—to save the oceans, nations must act together to share resources, intelligence, and build scientific and technological capacity.

One of the best opportunities to save the oceans is to protect the high seas, the area of ocean beyond national jurisdiction that makes up two-thirds of the ocean and nearly half the planet. When nations return to the UN next month to decide how to move forward in high seas protection, they will be making a decision critical for the future for the ocean.

Isabella Lövin of Sweden addresses the General Assembly Hall during a special meeting for World Oceans Day.

Lauren Kubiak

High Seas Discussions Represent Biggest Opportunity to Protect Oceans

Today, the high seas lack modern management mechanisms to address critical components of biodiversity conservation, such as the establishment of fully protected marine reserves. To fill those governance gaps, nations have been engaged in discussions at the UN to develop a new treaty to conserve and sustainably use biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (BBNJ). Discussions continue next month, during which nations will decide whether to convene formal diplomatic negotiations to develop the text of the new treaty.

States agreeing to move forward and convene an intergovernmental conference in 2018 is vital, as this new treaty represents an unparalleled opportunity to conserve two-thirds of the ocean. Finalizing a treaty would be equivalent to a Paris Agreement for the ocean—a once in a generation opportunity to begin to reverse the degradation of our ocean.

At the Ocean Conference this week, countries including Argentina, Costa Rica, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, Ireland, Malta, Mexico, Palau, Spain, among others, have called for strong international provisions to protect the high seas. Their leadership is critical and we hope is an indication that next month’s discussions will be successful.

As world leaders today discuss how best to protect the ocean, I hope they recognize the high seas as our best opportunity to ensure a healthy future for our ocean. All of us depend on it.  

A large school of fish swims near Kingman Reef, an area in the Pacific where marine life enjoy the types of protections needed in areas of the high seas.

Lauren Kubiak

Coastal Rallies in Response to Trump's Offshore Order
Franz Matzner

Millions of Americans spoke out over the last several years to urge then-President Barack Obama to protect our oceans. And he did, to large extent, by permanently withdrawing nearly all of the Arctic Ocean and sensitive areas of the Atlantic from consideration for oil and gas leasing, removing both oceans entirely from the 5-year leasing plan (covering 2017 through 2022), and limiting seismic exploration that substantially harms marine mammals. Today, President Trump is initiating his attempt to undo those measures and Americans will speak out again. The communities of our southeastern seaboard mobilized en masse to preclude the oil industry from drilling off their coasts. Many of those communities are acting quickly this week to respond to the threat Trump’s Executive Order poses to their very livelihoods.

Below is list of events being held in coastal southeastern states. It will be continuously updated as more details become available and more event plans are solidified. So please check back if you live in this region!


WHEN: Friday, 4/28 @ 1:15 PM
WHERE: Neptune Park, 31st St. on the boardwalk in Va. Beach
WHO (Speakers): Laura Wood Habr (Founding Member, BAPAC; Vice President, VBRA; Owner, Croc’s 19th St. Bistro); Joseph Bouchard, Ph.D. (Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.); Others TBA


WHAT: NO Oil Drill Press Conference/Rally
WHEN: Saturday, 4/29 @ 10:00 AM
WHERE: 10th St. Boat Ramp in Morehead City at the Bogue Sound end of the street (at the corner of 10th and Shepard St.)

WHAT: DontDrillNC press conference before OBX Peoples Climate March
WHEN: Saturday, 4/29 @ 9:00 AM
WHERE: Jockey's Ridge; 300 W. Carolista Drive, Nags Head, NC 27959

Another event in Wilmington, TBA


WHAT: Beaufort Press Conf
WHEN: Friday, 4/28 @ 11:00 AM
WHERE: Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, Bay St, Beaufort, SC 29902
WHO: Mayor Keyserling as primary speaker

WHAT: Myrtle Beach Press Conf
WHEN: Thursday, 5/4 @ 10:00 AM
WHERE: Damons Restaurant, 2985 S Ocean Blvd, Myrtle Beach, SC 29577

WHAT: Charleston Press Conf
WHEN: Friday, 4/28 @ 2:00 PM
WHERE: Charleston Maritime Center, 10 Warfside St. Charleston SC 29401
WHO: Mayor Tecklenberg speaking

U.S., Canadian Experts Urge More Than Words from PM Trudeau
Michael Jasny

If you want to see the makings of an environmental train wreck, just hop a ferry from Anacortes, Washington, a couple of hours north of Seattle. There among the beautiful San Juan Islands, one of the world’s most iconic whale populations, the southern resident orcas, is struggling to survive. A lack of food caused by our damming of rivers and depletion of salmon stocks has made it hard for the orcas to recruit new calves, and we’ve made their foraging still more difficult by flooding their waters with noise. The orcas have dwindled now to 78 individual whales, the lowest number seen in three decades, and many believe they’re on the verge of an extinction spiral.

Photo credit: Miles Ritter

You would think that the plight of a beloved and endangered species would give some pause to development. Last year, however, the Canadian government of Justin Trudeau approved a major pipeline expansion that would seriously degrade the transboundary waters of the Pacific Northwest, where the orcas live.

There is no question that the expansion, proposed by the Houston-based Kinder Morgan corporation, would make the whales’ situation even more precarious than it is now. If built, the new pipeline would carry as much as 600,000 barrels of tar sands each day from Alberta to greater Vancouver; and to transport that oil, about 400 of some of the larger tankers on the planet would have to pass each year through the straits of coastal Washington and British Columbia. All that tanker traffic would expose the whales, and the rest of the Salish Sea ecosystem, to the threat of a catastrophic spill of diluted bitumen, which is near impossible to clean up.

But even if perfect safety were assured, the noise produced by those massive ships would still exact a serious toll on the orcas. Noise alters their calls, masks their echolocation signals, shrinks the space in which they can communicate, and reduces the time they spend foraging—all of which undermines their already diminished opportunities to feed.

To its credit, the Canadian government has recognized the significant problem that shipping noise poses for the whales and, having approved Kinder Morgan, has since promised a plan, to be released as early as this summer, to reduce human noise in the Salish Sea. But the substance of that plan—what targets will apply, what measures the government will undertake—remains unclear.

Today twenty U.S. and Canadian orca and noise experts from institutions as diverse as Cornell University, the University of Victoria, and the Vancouver Aquarium sent a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau that sets the stakes for the Canadian plan.

The clear point of the letter is to call for more than words. “Along with increasing food availability and minimizing the risk of contaminants,” the experts write, “reducing acoustic disturbance from large vessels and other noise sources is essential to the recovery of the [orca] population.” And so they urge the Prime Minister to produce a plan with hard, science-based targets, committed funding, tangible noise-reduction measures, and a timetable for implementation—using every means available, including regulation, to achieve its aims. “It is essential,” they say, “that any new developments be consistent with [the] broader goals” of recovering the population and substantially quieting its habitat.

Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

When it comes to an endangered species like the southern resident orca, business as usual cannot suffice. Prime Minister Trudeau spent some of his formative years in British Columbia, and I have no doubt he cares personally about the survival of the whales. To be in any way meaningful, however, the plan that his ministers are developing must meet the fundamental standards set forth in today’s letter from the experts. And if new developments like Kinder Morgan make that difficult, presumably they should not proceed.

Drawing Out the Science
Seismic Sound's Dangerous
Imagine dynamite going off in your neighborhood every 10 seconds. Now imagine you can’t leave. That’s how marine life experience offshore oil and gas exploration.

Tell the industry and government to stop harmful ocean noise

Perrin Ireland

How we got the U.S. Navy to finally agree to stop conducting harmful sonar testing in sensitive whale migration and breeding areas.


The underwater racket caused by human activities is destroying marine life.

onEarth Story

The U.S. Navy agrees to give marine mammals off California and Hawaii a break from deafening noise.


NRDC led the international fight to keep industrial development out of Mexico’s pristine San Ignacio Lagoon.


Southern Resident orcas face many threats in the Northwest, but giving them more salmon could remedy most of them.

Southeast Dispatch

Southern communities prefer their coastlines sandy, beautiful, and bountiful—not filled with rigs and air guns blasting ships or covered in oil.

Major Victory on Low-Frequency Sonar
Michael Jasny
Sperm whale mother and calf Gabriel Barathieu

On Friday, a ruling in NRDC’s latest sonar case came down from the Ninth Circuit, the federal court of appeals that presides over most of the western United States. It was a major victory, and not only for marine mammals, but for the law that protects them.

The case concerns the Navy’s SURTASS LFA sonar system, a technology whose powerful, low-frequency signals can impact some marine mammal species—disrupting their ability to feed, breed, and communicate—over hundreds of miles. In 2012, the Navy asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for a global permission slip: It wanted the Service’s OK, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to harm endangered whales and other species across more than 70 percent of the world’s oceans. NRDC, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, and others urged the agency to take a precautionary approach, especially in the vast reaches of the ocean where little is known. Yet in the end the Service gave the Navy a virtual blank check, declining to protect habitat in most regions.

At stake in the Service’s decision was the law’s mitigation provision, the requirement that the agency prescribe measures resulting in the “least practicable adverse impact” on marine mammals before issuing any permit.

According to the Service, too little was known about marine mammal distribution in most parts of the world to warrant protection of their habitat. But the agency’s own experts, the very ones it had appointed to identify habitat for protection, disagreed. “Proven ecological principles,” they wrote, could be used to identify areas of likely importance, and they outlined a precautionary approach to protect islands and seamounts, as well as productive deep-water areas that are associated with sperm whales.

No doubt the experts’ approach would have swept in some areas of lesser importance and thus been overprotective; but the alternative embraced by the agency had the opposite effect. It left out a good deal of important marine mammal habitat, presuming in effect that no such habitat exists through the greater expanse of the Navy’s worldwide operating area. Before the Ninth Circuit, the Service argued that its view of the matter was entitled to deference; the court, however, saw that the agency’s “systematic underprotection of the marine mammals” (the court’s words) could not be squared with a law that demands the least impact practicable.

This is not the first time a federal court has ruled against the Service on LFA sonar. In 2003 (NRDC v. Evans) and again in 2008 (NRDC v. Gutierrez), the courts found that the agency’s mitigation measures had fallen far short of what the law requires. There, too, the Service gave the Navy worldwide clearance while refusing to protect areas that marine mammals depend on to feed, breed, nurse, and rest; and there, too, it tied itself in legal knots to do so.

But the improper positions it took in the present case—among them, the impossibly high burden of proof it put on science to justify mitigation—are by no means limited to LFA. The agency has set a similarly high bar for habitat protection on the Navy’s offshore ranges, where the military trains with tactical mid-frequency sonar and with explosives; and the measures it routinely prescribes for offshore oil and gas exploration and offshore construction hardly recognize, as the court does for Navy sonar, the “paramount importance” of habitat protection. It seems unlikely that the Service’s proposal to authorize seismic airgun surveys in the Atlantic—which is waiting in the wings—could possibly move forward without careful reconsideration. Meanwhile, the LFA case itself is being remanded to the lower court, to consider what relief should be granted.

Together with last year’s major court victory on Navy training off Southern California and Hawaii, and with last month’s announcement, by NOAA, of a new Ocean Noise Strategy, the Ninth Circuit’s decision ought to be one of those milestones that alter the agency’s course for good. We shall see.

NOAA Announcement on Ocean Noise: A Sea Change If We Want It
Michael Jasny
NOAA's new Ocean Noise Strategy has been released for public comment. NOAA

Readers of this blog know about ocean noise pollution, how our industrialization of the sea, and the increasing amount of sound we put in the water, is undermining ocean health. Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced what may be a sea change in the way we manage ocean noise off our shores.

Until now, the U.S. government has largely treated high-energy noise sources like a hazardous work site. If someone (in this case, a whale) is spotted too close, the industry or military practice is to stop producing those powerful pulses for a few minutes. This is what NOAA has required of the U.S. Navy when it trains with high-intensity sonar, and of the oil and gas industry when it repeatedly blasts the water with seismic airguns, and of construction projects when they use piledrivers at sea. But doing nothing more than scan for animals makes an awfully dubious approach to conservation. Whales can be notoriously hard to spot, even under the best of conditions. 

More importantly, focusing entirely on a small area around a sound source misses the big picture: the cumulative, chronic rise in far-traveling ocean noise from all of this industrial, military, and commercial activity taken together. That noise is degrading marine habitat and making it difficult for many species of marine life to thrive. Courts have condemned NOAA’s myopic approach as “woefully inadequate and ineffective,” and the conservation and scientific communities have repeatedly called for management that reflects the true scale of the problem.

What NOAA released today—an agency-wide Ocean Noise Strategy—holds the promise, at least, of something new.  

The new Strategy commits the agency to address chronic noise through every legal authority available to it. It calls for:

  • protecting and restoring the natural soundscape within our National Marine Sanctuaries;
  • mobilizing NOAA’s science assets to monitor ocean noise pollution off our shores;
  • using existing marine mammal and endangered species regulations to reduce disruption of important habitat; and
  • promoting quieter technologies, so that less noise gets into the water in the first place.

And that is just for starters.

In short, under the new policy-rich, four-chapter Strategy, NOAA would begin—finally—to manage noise as the pervasive ocean pollutant that it has become.

Shipping, naval sonar training, and oil and gas exploration fill our oceans with noise. (From "Sonic Sea") NRDC/IF/IFAW

The key, of course, is implementation. For all the strong commitments it makes, the Strategy itself does not direct anyone within the agency to do anything. What is needed, plainly and soon, is a concrete implementation plan and a budget to achieve it. And while the Strategy would give NOAA a true leadership role, it is largely silent on how NOAA will engage other relevant federal agencies, like the Department of Transportation, that are presently AWOL on the issue.

As always, real change requires public engagement. If we want the new Ocean Noise Strategy to become more than a paper tiger, we will have to demand it. But as a reflection of agency commitment, today’s announcement from NOAA is a major step forward.

NRDC’s award-winning documentary on ocean noise, Sonic Sea, narrated by Rachel McAdams, is now showing on the Discovery Channel. You can take action—and arrange a screening—at sonicsea.org


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