Noise impacts on fish and invertebrates workshop

I spent last week in San Diego attending a workshop sponsored by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on the impacts of human generated noise on marine fish and invertebrates. Having watched the field of ocean noise impacts roll slowly forward in fits and starts for 20 years, this workshop is really a breath of fresh air (or a gulp of fresh water).

Most of what has driven the ‘noise impacts’ discussion over the years has been concern for marine mammals – both from regulations such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, and from the concerns of the public for the critters that are called “marine charismatic megafauna” in the conservation business.

Of course the ocean is much more than a menagerie of iconic animals; it also includes a vast portion of the biota – from the simplest bacteria and archea to the most complex communities of fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals – upon which all life on earth depends.

We have afforded a modicum of protection for some members of this menagerie with regulations because they inspire us or feed us. But our regulatory frameworks do not protect all of the animals which are impacted by noise and that make up the web of ocean life.

This is why the BOEM workshop was so exceptional. It brought together many of the world’s experts on marine bioacoustics to spend a few days digging down into our concerns and understandings about the impacts of noise on the less charismatic, but nonetheless equally important members of the animal kingdom found in the sea.

Giant squid beached coincident to seismic surveys

Giant squid beached coincident to seismic surveys

BOEM’s objective falls under the recent “ecosystem based management practices” advanced by NOAA Director Jane Lubchenko “to make non-arbitrary management decisions that are scientifically informed.” Our objective as attendees was to form a basis of understanding and inquiry that informs BOEM about impacts of noise on the diverse species of marine fish and invertebrates.

While this meeting did not solve all of the ocean’s acoustic mysteries, it provided a substantial opening to bring biologists, acousticians, physicists, and engineers together to work toward common strategies on understanding and decreasing our acoustical impacts on marine life.

After a decade of inaction on federal ocean policy, this is really something to celebrate.

Shipping noise correlated to stress in whales

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society correlates shipping noise with stress levels in baleen whales. Heretofore this has been a difficult assumption to prove because we do not have any baseline of whale stress levels prior to the introduction of the vast shipping networks we now use in global trade.

Map of shipping routes

Researchers can get an idea of metabolic stress levels because they are correlated to hormone indicators (glucocorticoids) in body fluids. Rosalind Rolland with the New England Aquarium was studying the glucocorticoids in the feces of North Atlantic Right whale in the Bay of Fundy through September 2001. She was doing this research concurrently with a study on Right whale social behavior being conducted by Susan Parks with Penn State and Syracuse University.

Both of these studies overlapped the September 11 tragedy and the subsequent halting of air and sea transportation for a few days. It was across this time that the noise levels in the ocean decreased significantly. Parks, Rolland and other colleagues brought their work together and noticed a marked decrease in stress indicators with the decrease in shipping noise.

Whale Feces Sniffing Dog

This is a real benchmark to our understanding of how chronic anthropogenic noise impacts baleen whales – which are too large to test in lab settings and not really interested in cooperating with behavioral scientists in the wild. Given that the glucocorticoids are part of a feedback mechanism in the immune system, this finding also confirms concerns that shipping noise compromises the health of these whales.

The paper is discussed in “lay” terms in a Science article that also introduces us to the critically important scientific instrument, a dog – whose nose can pinpoint whale feces in the ocean. (The dog was not included as a co-author on the paper.)

This paper should provide us with important supporting data as we attempt to slow industrial development in the pristine acoustic environment of Arctic.

Fossil Fuel Noise in the Arctic – website launches!

If you have been anywhere within earshot of the media recently you may have noticed that the Oilmen are on a bit of a rampage. Any sustainable energy program, environmental regulation, or legal challenge that does not promote their agenda is met with apoplectic derision as a “job killer” or worse.

Oil Seeking ArmadaOne of the drivers behind this is the American Petroleum Institutes (API) strategic plan to make America the #1 global oil and gas producer by 2018. API’s president Jack Gerard aims to accomplish this by expanding fossil fuel extraction on all US coasts, rolling back environmental regulations, and defending industry subsidies.

While it may just seem like the “flow of tides” in the public sector, those of us in conservation organizations are working overtime on many fronts: “Fracking,” East Coast drilling, Eastern Gulf lease expansion, Keystone XL, California Coast horizontal drilling, Outer Continental Shelf deep-water drilling, opening up the Arctic, and of course the climate impacts of these new fossil fuel energy sources – are all in play right now.

We have been anticipating this and for that last year have been working with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on a highly interactive and informative website specifically focused on the noise impacts of oil and gas operations in the Arctic.

“Don’t be a Buckethead” refers to the acoustical masking that all of the new introduced noise of industry will impose on the highly acoustic habitat of the Arctic Ocean (remember that it is mostly dark throughout the winter, setting the evolutionary stage for some amazing bio-acoustic adaptations). This point is illustrated with a fun and quirky “Buckethead” video on the website.

While we believe that a “full court press” on hydrocarbon development is generally a bad idea, given what we do know (and don’t know) about the risks and impacts, drilling in the Arctic is completely unacceptable.

Please help us halt this foolhardy proposal. Visit the Buckethead site to learn more – or cut to the chase and sign our petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service asking them to do their job and protect the pristine Arctic Ocean from industrial compromise.

Then visit the site…

Marine Scientists express themselves through CNN

An article appeared today in “CNN Opinion” by Chris Clark and Brandon Southall focused on the impacts of noise on marine life. It is an informative read and also highlights two important trends in the field.

First, it points to a trend in impact awareness and research from incident-specific catastrophic impacts (such as sonar induced mass strandings) toward chronic compromise of habitat due to “sub-lethal” noise sources such as shipping noise and seismic airgun surveys. This keys into the more holistic “Ecosystem Based Management” concept introduced into NOAA’s regulatory framework by NOAA director Jane Lubchenko when she took the reins in 2009.

The second important trend is that noted scientists are stepping forward with opinions and recommendations – something that until recently was not in most scientists repertoire. This trend is becoming exceedingly critical given the more rapacious and troubling trend of policy makers and industry moguls of just making up convenient lies without regard for scientific fact – ignoring the hard, methodical work that scientists do to assure the integrity of their findings.

Drs. Clark and Southall are at the vanguard of this trend which will hopefully encourage scientists in all fields to reach out to the public with their findings. Given the urgent state of our global habitat – frayed by the frenzied drive of “The Economy,” scientific voices are profoundly needed to inform and influence public opinion and policies.

Thanks guys!

Mitigating offshore wind farm noise

One of the hot topics at the recent International Quiet Ocean Experiment in Paris was the noise impacts of offshore wind farms. It seems that while the American Oilmen are furiously trying to carve up the Arctic for fossil fuel, the Europeans are rapidly developing wind power. Much of this is happening in the North Sea between the United Kingdom and the European continent.

North Sea Wind Farm

While wind power has significantly lower environmental impact than fossil fuel, it does not come without drawbacks. From a noise standpoint the concerns include the noise of installation, and the ongoing noises of operation.

The operation noises include gearbox vibration transmitted down the mast, and the thumping noise generated by the tip vortices as they pass by a boundary (like the ocean surface).

Pile Driving with bubble curtain

The installation noises in the shallow North Sea are from pile-driving the foundations to mount the mast. Percussive noise from pile driving was found to be deadly to fish, and pernicious to marine mammals.

Mitigation for pile driving noise was first developed during the San Francisco Bay Area bridge retrofits and involves the use of “bubble curtains.” By surrounding a driving pile with a ring of air bubbles, the water and noise within the ring can be acoustically isolated from the surrounding environment.

The drawback here is that the process is energy intensive because a high volume of air needs to be continuously forced down to the depth of the seabed to be released in a continuous stream. This can get really expensive: This mandated mitigation doubled the cost of the Richmond Bridge seismic retrofit.

But researchers at the University of Texas, Austin have developed an improvement on the bubble curtain – by encapsulating the bubbles in a latex envelope, a curtain can be installed while pile driving, and then relocated when needed elsewhere.

This promising technology could decrease the expense as well as the noise of developing wind farms in the North Sea – or even off the coast of America!

“The Cove” Slaughtering dolphins in Japan for food, fun, and profit

Taiji Dolphin CoveThe environmental thriller “The Cove” follows the stealth reconnaissance work of Ric O’Barry as he uncovers the dolphin drive fishery in Taiji, Japan.

Ric was the dolphin trainer who selected and trained the dolphins of the 60’s TV series “Flipper” – which began the American love affair with these sentient and intelligent animals.

The consequences of this national love affair included a rapid rise of dolphin parks and water shows throughout the world – a fact that troubled Mr. O’Barry so much that he has since dedicated his life to reversing this practice – now working for Earth Island’s Marine Mammal Project.

The dolphins in these parks come from many places throughout the world, but perhaps the most disturbing pedigree are the dolphins that are selected from the victims of the Taiji drive fishery.

Each year some 20,000 dolphins are herded, slaughtered and butchered in Taiji, Japan – except for the few “unblemished” and photogenic specimens that are selected by dolphin “trainers” and sent to parks around the world.

The dolphins that don’t make this ‘cut’ make the death cut and are sold into the Japanese markets falsely labeled as “whale meat.” (People are getting wise to the extreme mercury load of dolphin meat.)

The dolphins are driven into the cove by noise – the fishermen hammer on metal pipes with resonators submersed into the water. The noise is obnoxious enough to drive the dolphins into the cove to escape. Nets are then drawn across the cove and the grisly affair begins.

While the movie is grim, the filmmakers have spared us the most gruesome shots; and if dolphin slaughter can be sensitively displayed, they have done the best that could be done.

“The Cove” is an eco-thriller that will hopefully stop this gruesome fishery in its tracks – and perhaps be the first of a genre of movies wherein environmental activists are honored for their heroism, rather than ridiculed for their zeal.

“The Cove” opens this week in NY and LA and in other major US cities next Friday

See: for locations near you.

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