Europe cracks down on underwater noise

Europe cracks down on underwater noise: Critically Endangered North Atlantic right whale (NOAA Fisheries / Lisa Conger)
Critically Endangered North Atlantic right whale (NOAA Fisheries / Lisa Conger)

An “historic step” to protect marine life from underwater noise pollution is how the campaign body International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has welcomed new mandatory limits set this week by the European Commission, in a move that represents a first for Europe.

Half of underwater noise globally is produced by commercial shipping, which dominates the background sound experienced by ocean-dwellers – and sometimes scuba divers too. 

“This constant din hinders marine animals from detecting and interpreting biologically important sounds,” says IFAW. “It can also change predator-prey interactions and community structure, compromise food-web dynamics and stability, and risk ecosystem productivity and services.”

The announcement comes more than a year after an EC technical working group agreed on the limits that EU member-states would need to observe to achieve “Good Environmental Status” for the ocean. 

The measures now form an EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), giving countries until this October to update their own strategies in accordance with that directive.

Blue Speeds

While IFAW has hailed the adoption of mandatory thresholds as an “excellent step”, it says it must be complemented by effective, enforceable operational measures, with the onus on the commission to provide clear guidance to member-states on how to achieve them.

IFAW’s “Blue Speeds” campaign calls for a speed ceiling of 75% of the maximum design speed of commercial vessels to be enforced in EU seas, claiming that this would be “the most viable and easily achievable practice the shipping industry can implement to respect the adopted thresholds”. 

It says that a recent study found that adhering to Blue Speeds in EU waters could reduce noise pollution by 25% and the risk of ships colliding with whales by 23%. 

It would also lower fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution from shipping by about 8% each.

“Underwater noise pollution is a little-known but growing threat to the health and lives of whales, dolphins and many other marine species,” said Ilaria Di Silvestre, IFAW’s head of EU policy & campaigns. “IFAW is calling for immediate action to turn down the noise, and the implementation of Blue Speeds for commercial ships in European waters offers an immediate and straightforward solution.

“The recently revised EU Environmental Crime Directive recognises the threats of underwater noise pollution by including it in the list of criminal offences,” said Di Silvestre. “This makes the impact of the thresholds communicated today even stronger. 

“Implementing Blue Speeds would greatly help member-states to implement new underwater noise limits and the EU to honour international obligations,”

Also on Divernet: Sea traffic is deafening UK’s marine mammals, Dolphins raise voices against human din, Out with whales? Ask about decibels, Grey seals clap for victory


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