2016 Progress Report – A thick year!

It has been my habit to keep our newsletters “short and sweet” – less than 500 words so they can be read in a minute or so. But I just finished compiling a progress report for our institutional funders to let them know where we are on the “bang for bucks” index. In doing this I also got to review what we did over the year, and I realized that we got a lot done in 2016 – too much to reduce to 500 words.

So if you are sitting in front of your computer with a cup or a glass of something and want to pry your gaze away from the presidential antics on FaceBook for a while, the following might serve as better news:

2016 was a year like no other in terms of progress on ocean noise and offshore protections. Collaborating with other conservation organizations we managed to make some pretty significant inroads in elevating the ocean noise issue in the public conversation, and we’re finally seeing some concrete progress made by NOAA Fisheries on noise exposure guidelines.

In November of 2015 we had “thrown the gauntlet down” with NOAA Fisheries Chief Eileen Sobeck. At the request of colleagues in the Marine Mammal Commission we went to speak with Ms. Sobeck about the pending seismic survey plan for the Atlantic coast of the US. Joining us were Claire Douglass, and Lara Levinson with Oceana, and Michael Jasney from NRDC.

That meeting resulted in the survey plan being buried in NOAA Fisheries’ inbox until the end of the Obama administration, when it was sunk altogether. The plan was also one of the pillars of the 2017-2022 “Five Year Plan” on Atlantic offshore oil and gas leases.

Again, working with colleagues at Oceana, Surfrider, and the Southern Environmental Law Center (among others) we managed to galvanize citizens, businesses, and politicians to firmly oppose the oil and gas development off the Mid Atlantic Seaboard.

In the end we managed to get over 1000 elected officials, 100 municipalities, and an alliance of over 35,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families opposed to offshore oil. In the momentum of this support the leasing plans were pulled, and in the wake of that the survey plans were sunk. And given the large public participation, they will be hard to un-sink.

2016 was also a year steeped in ocean noise “metrics.” This has been a really important component of our work – and something that I have been focused on since 1992. Unfortunately, it is a bit arcane for funders, so we do this work out of our operations budget.

When I first began assessing and speaking about ocean noise pollution, much of the noise-oriented work (and noise generation) was being done by “physical oceanographers” who seemed to have a distain for “biological sentimentality.” They would in turn dismiss conservationists who didn’t understand the math (the metrics). I did understand the math so I started using my understanding to clarify the metrics to the public.

As I dug deeper into the metrics I was finding that the field was in great disarray. Researchers were using all sorts of metric expressions without reconciling them to any national or international standards, so trying to get a clear bead on what impacts a particular noise might have on any given animal was a regulatory mosh-pit. I gave a presentation on this at the Acoustics Society (ASA) Meeting in 2004 and joined the ASA American National Standards Institute (ANSI) where we have been reconciling and crafting bio-acoustic standards since then. Then in 2010 I became an ANSI delegate to the International Standards Organization (ISO) working on “Underwater Terminology Standards.”

Working on the international standards was challenging and informative. Many stakeholders were involved – from academic researchers to industrial and military engineers. OCR was the only conservation NGO on the committee, and I was able to get some important terminology in the standard that will make our conservation work easier (a bit too arcane to detail here). I am also just now coordinating the final ANSI Vote on the international standard “ISO18405 Underwater Acoustics Terminology” (YEA!).

This standards work came in handy this year as we reviewed and critiqued the NOAA Fisheries “Acoustical Guidelines.” These were long in the making as the last time these guidelines were reviewed was in 2006. I’m not entirely satisfied with the adopted guidelines as they made some deference to the seismic survey industry, but they are far better than the legacy guidelines.

We do know we are making progress overall when we see regulatory agencies responding to public concerns. This year NOAA Fisheries “Office of Protected Resources” released a “Roadmap” on ocean noise policy outlining the “data gaps” (what needs to be known) and how they will proceed in filling these gaps. It is a well-crafted document and while we were concerned that it would just be a policy paper and not an action plan, almost immediately NOAA began funding and advancing research.

Unfortunately, the current Republican Administration has a phobia about scientific truth so we fear that this roadmap progress will be de-funded once they populate the administration of NOAA with industry shills.

Another big part of what we do is review and critique Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that are required for any proposed actions that will change or compromise land or the ocean under US Governmental jurisdiction. These documents are often 2000+ pages and we typically have only 30 or 45 days to review and submit our critiques. This is not “romantic” work like saving seal pups from hunters, but it is really necessary when establishing legal bulwarks against corporate and military over-reach.

The aforementioned Seismic Surveys and the Mid-Atlantic Lease Sales were both released as EIS’s and much of our collective work to defeat them came out of these critiques. The Acoustical Guidelines was also issued with and EIS so our objections have been lodged.

In May I was at the Acoustical Society meeting in Salt Lake City convening a session on the “Industrialization of the Ocean.” This topic is “front and center” with us, particularly how industry is deploying underwater technologies into the ocean that is generating un-tolled, and un-mitigated noise. We hosted a workshop on the same topic here in the Bay Area bringing in scientists and legal scholars to discuss the technologies and implications. I released a “white paper” that was a result of this workshop that has been generating discussion in the field.

We were also planning to sponsor a larger workshop on this in conjunction with NOAA and the Office of Naval Research, but given the state of regulatory destruction by the current Administration, we’ll need to wait until the smoke settles before we commit to that plan.

Another part of our work involves attending professional and stakeholder workshops and conferences. In addition to the Acoustical Society Meeting in Salt Lake City, I attended the International Standards Organization meeting in Teddington, England, an Ocean Noise conference in Dublin, Ireland, and a “Detection, Classification, and Localization” workshop at Scripps Institute in San Diego. These meetings are where we meet and confer with US national and global colleagues who are scientists, academics, military, and Regulators. While I get a lot of writing done at our San Rafael Office, these meetings and conferences are where “the rubber hits the road” and we can advance our ideas and discuss or concerns with international ocean noise stakeholders.

In October I was invited to give the conservation keynote at the International Maritime Conference in the Republic of Georgia. I was honored to be given the opportunity to present to international delegates about the impacts of shipping noise on marine life, and get a chance to visit a fascinating country with a tortuous history and simple, but good cuisine.

I suppose the banner event this year in terms of public notice was our participation as a prevailing plaintiff in the “NRDC et al. V. Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce” in a ruling against the US Navy about deployment of Low Frequency Active Sonar around the world. This ruling set a precedent on getting the US Navy to play by conservation rules, and the settlement will fund some good noise exposure research for the next three years.

Along the way I gave a number of public presentations – hosting the NRDC movie Sonic Sea, in Berkeley, Lafayette, and West Marin, and continued to detail our ongoing progress in our Newsletter which can be found on our blog website at www.Ocean-Noise.com.

Of course none of this would have been possible without your generous support. The work we do is not always highly visible, but we have been making progress – even while industry and the Navy continue to colonize the ocean soundscapes with their increasingly complex and unrelenting noises. With your help we can focus public awareness on these critical issues with the objective of finding solutions to the ubiquitous problems with ocean noise pollution.

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