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At the UN Ocean Conference, Recognizing an Unseen Pollutant: Noise

North Atlantic right whale and calf, courtesy of NOAA

By Howard Rosenbaum

As we mark World Oceans Day today, it is safe to say that of all the threats facing the world’s oceans in the 21st Century, the most tangible (and visible) of these is pollution. Televised images of oil spills in a once-pristine location have become the very definition of environmental disaster, while firsthand encounters with plastics and debris on a beach or floating offshore serve to remind us that no corner of the earth is completely free of human-produced refuse.

Pollution is also a major topic of discussion at this week’s United Nations Ocean Conference in New York City. The event brings together governmental leaders, conservationists, scientists, and others from all corners of the globe to focus on the ocean, its future, and sustainable development.

The discussions include efforts to conserve the world’s oceans, seas, and marine resources while minimizing threats such as climate change, overfishing, and a frightening array of pollutants ranging from solid waste runoff, hazardous chemicals, wastewater, and plastics that all flow seaward from our cities, farms, and coastal dwellings.

Some UN delegates are also focusing on another kind of pollution, one that is invisible and temporary but devastating to many marine animals: noise. Noise pollution has to be recognized as a threat to whales, dolphins, and other species, and was the focus of a specific workshop at the UN conference that my colleagues and I at Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) organized with a number of partners last February.

Whales, which live in and migrate between marine habitats (some with considerable levels of maritime transport and other industrial activities), are particularly at risk from noise. These underwater blasts can disrupt behaviors and prevent these marine mammals from finding food and communicating with one another.

Most recently, the discussion on how to mitigate the threat of ocean noise pollution on marine life took on a frightful urgency. On Monday of this week, we learned of a new proposal by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to enable oil and gas exploration along the East Coast of the United States.

The new announcement stems from a recent Executive Order signed by President Trump that effectively negates a previous 5-year ban on oil and gas exploration and development made by the Obama administration. For scientists and conservationists working to protect whales and their biologically important marine habitats, it’s a sobering reminder that environmental victories can be quickly undone.

Seismic airgun surveys in the Atlantic Ocean pose a great risk to one of the world’s most endangered large mammal species, the North Atlantic right whale. It is typically a slow-moving animal and is largely coastal in its distribution. The most vulnerable parts of its range—the species’ calving and wintering grounds—are exactly where the seismic airgun arrays will emit repeated underwater blasts to survey beneath the seafloor for oil and gas deposits.

This is a nightmare scenario for a species that was hunted in the 20th century to near extinction. To protest the new authorization for seismic airgun surveys, a consortium of organizations including WCS, New England Aquarium, Duke University, and Cornell University have issued a statement urging the government to reverse course on its proposal.

It is dispiriting that, during a week in which the world comes together to protect oceans and their extraordinary wildlife, the US government unveils the worst kind of plan for the future of its ‘own’ marine mammals.

As scientists and conservation groups mobilize to rally against seismic airgun surveys, it is important to point out that the American public has a crucial role to play in helping protect our coastal wildlife and wonders. And what is the best way to sound the alarm about ocean noise?  Contact your local, state and federal representatives and tell them how seismic airguns can be harmful to the ocean’s wildlife, particularly whales and dolphins (some of which support thriving ecotourism businesses).

Concerned citizens can also participate via petitions and other actions taken by Blue York, a campaign based out of WCS’s New York Aquarium that focuses on the marine environs of New York City. If enough people voice their concern about how these types of exploitation of marine resources can hurt our coastal environment, we may be able to keep marine habitats healthy and as quiet as possible.

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Dr. Howard Rosenbaum directs the Ocean Giants Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).