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Ocean Noise

The Huffington Post, December 21, 2015

Even Whales and Dolphins Can't Escape Our Din
ByMiyoko Sakashita

The hustle-bustle of modern life echoes through our oceans -- in the roar of ship engines, the Navy's sonar pings and exploding munitions, and the seismic blasts by searchers for fossil fuels. Along the way we're deafening and disorienting sea creatures who rely on their own subtle sounds to meet their most basic survival and social needs.

We understand the damage that we're doing, and we regularly see it graphically displayed in the whales and dolphins who beach themselves to escape the cacophony we're so carelessly creating in their realm. The madness of our modern life can drive the creatures of the sea crazy and we're barely taking note of the most shocking displays of that mania.

The federal government acknowledges that its plan to usepowerful air guns to map oil depositson the Atlantic seafloor would kill or injure 138,000 dolphins and whales and create 13.5 million instances of harm to marine mammals -- all to find oil that we should leave in the ground anyway if we're to meet our climate change goals. That's the disconnect between our actions and our ambitions, between how we like to think of ourselves and the audible impact we're having on a natural world that's so different from terrestrial life.

Thelatest studyon how maritime sound hurts sea life looks at the critically endangered Southern resident killer whales that inhabit Washington's heavily trafficked Puget Sound, with only 84 orcas remaining. Researchers with the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the daily hum of maritime traffic often prevents these vulnerable, verbal creatures from finding food and mates and remaining in contact with their families, a support system they rely on for survival.

Most of our worst impacts are avoidable. The speed of ships along Washington's coastline -- not their size or design -- is by far the biggest factor in the underwater noise that blasts the orcas, the study found. So all we would need to do to reduce this threat is just slow down. But we don't. The expectations of commerce -- thefree trade of fast-flowing goodsfrom every corner of the globe -- are trumping even the consideration of reasonable conservation measures.

Yet there are forces pushing back. As anexcellent recent article in TakePartexplains, Canada has begun to consider the creation of quiet zones in biologically rich waterways and its regulators have been studying maritime noise with an eye toward reducing it. The European Union has been working on legislative remedies to reduce maritime noise, and the International Marine Organization last year adopted regulations to quiet commercial vessels. Just adopting slower speeds for container ships would reduce both their noise and their carbon emissions, a dual benefit in this warming world.

In the United States, it's the courts -- afterlitigation by conservation groups-- that have stepped in to force the U.S. Navy to reconsider its assertion of the right to blast sea creatures with sonar and explosions everywhere and at any time as sailors train for war.New environmental studiesthat will more carefully examine the Navy's impact on whales and dolphins will be conducted over the next year, with public comment on the scoping of that study due next month.

Sonar and its disorienting impacts are suspected in the deaths of whales and dolphins around the world in recent years, including two dolphins thatwashed up on a San Diego beachlast month following Navy training exercises in the area. There are also indications that ocean noise played a role in the six dead whales that washed up on Northern California beaches this summer.

As a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and the head of its oceans program, I've been involved with the Navy lawsuit, challenging the seismic testing in the Atlantic, and with trying to win greaterprotections for the Southern Resident killer whales. The common denominator in each of these cases is sound, and the recognition of its impact on aquatic life. So let's slow our roll as we traverse the oceans and work on being better neighbors to the whales, dolphins, and all our fellow creatures.

Miyoko Sakashita is the oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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Jeffrey pine photo by John Villinski.