Are We Mentioning Enough About Underwater Noise Pollution? - Gülce Özdilekcan


While we think of an enjoyable Saturday morning, we think of a warm cup of coffee, a nice and prolonged breakfast, nice music playing in the background, the sound of changing the page of the newspaper, and so on… Suddenly, we hear the traffic noises and maybe an accident. In the neighborhood, they decide to continue the construction and start to bring the construction vehicles. It is vivid how disturbing it can be. Think of it as it is under the ocean, and you are disturbed by these sounds repeatedly throughout the time, and you start to lose your hearing ability, which is your only survival mechanism. This video shows how it may feel to be under constant exposure.


Even though we have been familiar with the ongoing problem of noise pollution surrounding us for years now, as I was researching, I came across underwater noise pollution, which is more of a trending topic these years. It can also be called ocean noise. The US National Ocean Service defines it as "sounds made by human activities that can interfere with or obscure the ability of marine animals to hear natural sounds in the ocean.” These sounds may not be heard or recognized by humans, making it less of a known environmental issue.


There are various ways ocean noise can be created. Shipping, recreational boating, and energy exploration are some of the causes defined by the US National Ocean Service. Also, industrial fishing, coastal constructions, oil drilling, seismic surveys, warfare, sea-bed mining, and sonar-based navigation are some undercover reasons for ocean noise. Even if these underwater activities have not recently started, the impact of underwater noise pollution has been a recently searched topic. However, it has been estimated that underwater noise pollution has been showing its impact for over a century now; with the overall improvement in marine technology, it has shown more impact on ocean life.


How does ocean noise affect marine life?

Firstly, the noise created in the soil and the water has different effects. The range of the noise is different. For example, we as humans don't hear the traffic sound from kilometers away; after some range, we cannot hear those types of sounds. Also, the buildings, the trees, etc., can block the sound. However, in the water, the magnitude and the range of the sound created differ as well. It has a larger effect on the perimeter; therefore, it travels more.


The main problem that doesn't affect humans may be, however, “noise can travel long distances underwater, blanketing large areas, and potentially preventing marine animals from hearing their prey or predators, finding their way, or connecting with mates, group members, or their young.” Throughout the years, it has been observed that the population of the underwater mammal species has decreased due to ocean noise disturbing their way of communication. Invertebrates have also been affected, and most of the fish species have shown stress behavior, such as leaving their homes, which resulted in decreased fish populations.


What is Done So Far?

International Maritime Organization has written a resolution (RESOLUTION MSC.338(91)) and set some boundaries and regulations for the sake of reducing ocean noise. This resolution was written in 2012 in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). This resolution was written regarding the Code on Noise Levels on Board Ships, set by IMO again. These regulations consist of technical regulations for both constructions and the regulations of the ships. It also sets the maximum amount of noise a ship can produce. Apart from these, IMO has published guidelines and manuals to control ocean noise. However, it is still open to arguments because IMO cannot force any state to comply with the regulations. It can only give advice. Therefore, some member states of the UN may not be fully dedicated to solving environmental issues. Still, there is an effort, but I am not sure if they can be the solid answers to the problem. With a similar approach, in 2019, WWF has made their supporters sign a petition in the Arctic Council, which acts as a “pinky promise” not to create ocean noise and obey the guidelines and research about the issue. I interpret both as precautions but not the solid solutions for the issue.


Talking about legislation, governments are confused as well. While international organizations can set some "advice," governments' power of legislation is, of course, more powerful and impactful. However, surprisingly, even though this is a serious issue that needs to be acted upon, governments are in a dilemma between economic and political outcomes and environmental outcomes. They are often concerned about the commercial aspect of ocean life because if they apply the experts' rules, the profitability of the oceans will decrease as well. The ocean noise is only a problem caused by water activities, but it also can be caused by offshore activities such as agriculture in those areas. Restricting these activities will cause a burden on the government as well.