Oil industry sponsored workshop on ocean noise

About ten years ago I attended a workshop sponsored by the US Navy on the “Environmental Consequences of Underwater Sound” (ECOUS) attended by scientists, geophysicists, regulators, Navy personnel, and a couple of us from the environmental NGO community (eNGO’s). We all knew very little back then about the impacts of noise on marine life, but in the wake of a couple of major catastrophic strandings it was clear that human generated ocean noise was fast becoming a serious problem.

While the ECOUS workshop was reasonably collegial, the climate of the ocean noise conversation at the time was deeply contentious; environmentalists were accusing the Navy of subterfuge and denial, academics were saying that the eNGOs were exploiting the sentiments of the public for fundraising purposes, engineers and biologists were making catty comments behind each other’s backs, and the oilmen looked on with measured disdain.

There was ample evidence to support everyone’s hidebound perspectives. And where hard data on noise impacts were lacking, the discussion could at least be propelled by vitriol.

A lot of water has passed under the hull since then. Regulatory thresholds have been set, mitigation practices implemented, and methodologies and metrics began ordering around a recognizable, if not entirely trusted set of standards.

This last week I attended another workshop on the impacts of sound on marine life, this time sponsored by the Oil and Gas Producers “Joint Industry Programe” (JIP). Over the last decade the JIP has funded a lot of research on marine acoustics, knowing that good science feeds a rational and predictable regulatory environment. They – along with the US Navy (the Big Two ocean noise makers) have done much of the heavy lifting around funding bio-acoustic science.

This meeting was much more collegial than the ECOUS workshop. Quite a number of us have “been through the ringer” with each other over the last decade. That, along with the products of a decade of research gives us a lot more content for our converstations.

And even while we seem even farther away from having clear, unambiguous regulatory practices than we were in 2002, the ambiguity comes from appreciating the complexity of the data rather than being confounded by the lack of it.

At the end of the day, and in the face of what some might call “arbitrary” regulations, stranding incidents have been diminishing and we are broadening our understanding about marine life and sound.

It is doubtful that we will ever craft a “go/no-go” set of regulations, or have a set of push-button answers to our acoustical questions. It is likely that our marine activities will continue to impact marine habitats. But by deepening our understanding of the field we run a better chance of developing good ocean stewardship practices, and diminish our acoustical impacts on marine life.