How Does Underwater Noise Impact Our Ocean?

It’s up to us to make sure we keep the ocean quiet so ocean animals can thrive

Every day, we see countless threats endanger the environmental integrity of our ocean, like oil spills and marine debris. Yet have you thought about the threats that are easier heard than seen?

Many animals, including whales and dolphins, rely on sound to navigate, find prey, hide from predators and communicate with each other. But noise from commercial shipping, seismic surveys, oil exploration and military sonar can make it harder for them to hear, which can affect their ability to survive in a variety of ways. For example, noise causes disruption of feeding, resting and breeding behaviors; it can lead to hearing loss and physical injury and can even lead to chronic stress.

Imagine if you were sitting at a café trying to chat with a friend or quietly work, but a person with a loud speaker was shouting right into your ear. You’d tell this person to go away, or you’d have to get up and leave. You’d do anything to get away from this obnoxious noise.

Unlike us, ocean animals can’t ask to turn down the noise. At best, they can attempt to flee the noise.

When the world came to a halt last year around COVID-19, international shipping declined 20% in just a few months, resulting in about a 25% decrease in noise in our seas. Due to this decrease, we’re seeing in real time how animals can prosper in quieter seas. One study in Alaska found humpback whales socializing, feeding and even napping in once-busy channels. Orcas in Scotland and Canada have been found closer to shore.

Luckily, some organizations have recognized noise as a threat to our ocean and have taken important steps to address the problem. Five years ago, NOAA released its Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap, a ten-year plan to ensure NOAA comprehensively addresses noise impacts on aquatic species and their habitats. The Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment committee of the Arctic Council is researching the impacts of noise on Arctic waters. And most recently, in June, the International Maritime Organization (the United Nations’ agency that regulates international shipping) approved a new work item to review its noise reduction guidelines for ships and make them more effective.

As the world opens up more and more, it’s up to us to make sure we keep the ocean quiet so its animals can thrive. You can help do this by supporting organizations addressing this issue and taking actions like joining us in asking NOAA to continue to implement noise reduction policies. 

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