Returning from an ocean adventure

ISO terminology colleagues - The smartest guys in the room: Phillip Atkins, Ken Foote, Pete Theobold, Andrew Holden, Victor Humphrey, and Eric Thorsos

ISO terminology colleagues – The smartest guys in the room: Phillip Atkins, Ken Foote, Pete Theobold, Andrew Holden, Victor Humphrey, and Eric Thorsos


I’ve just returned from a month of coast to coast ocean work and somehow I’ve accomplished this without even getting my feet wet. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to ocean conservation and management is that the policy work occurs in stale and dry rooms filled (mostly) with middle-aged white guys, while the product and impacts of those efforts happen in this imaginal realm called “The Sea,” filled with all manner of fabulous and colorful critters.

So much human industry is happening underwater; out of sight and so far from our reach, in a realm of which we know next to nothing. The complex interactions and dependencies that comprise living marine ecosystems are being decided in dry rooms abstracted from the actual habitats using “metrics” that produce hard numbers, but are often of questionable utility.

I began this marine adventure in Houston, Texas at a fossil fuel industry conference – the industry that provides the gas for your car and the most of the fertilizer for your asparagus, where I was boning up on the technologies they are deploying as they colonize the sea. This industry is at the vanguard of marine technology and they are not looking in their rear-view mirrors as they expand into the sea. So while “Navy Sonar” and “Seismic Airgun Blasting” are firmly on the public screen, the “industrialization of the ocean” is rapidly moving up on deck. Pretty sobering…

Once the blood returned to my cheeks I headed to Washington DC to join a large shoal of colleagues in the marine conservation community to bring our ocean agenda to “The Hill.” Taking our priorities and concerns directly to lawmakers in person is about as effective as one can get short of buying election results outright. There were a lot of us and I suspect that our ocean convergence had something to do with President Obama’s recently proclaiming June 2015 as National Ocean Month just a few weeks after our “laying siege on The Hill.”

My final venue was at the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab, who hosted an International Standards Organization (ISO) meeting establishing standard procedures for evaluating pile-driving noise, radiated noise from ships, and sonar target calibration. We were also crafting a standard terminology for expressing these and other underwater acoustical phenomena.

When I first began working on the ocean noise issue the noise makers and the conservationists where doing a lot of finger-wagging and using terms which were loosely defined and poorly understood. As I began “looking under the hood” of the problem I realized that without having a clearly articulated vocabulary very little progress would be made on the issue.

Having clearly defined terms and procedures works wonders in clearing away the dross of fear and expectations. When we agree on meanings and protocols the issues under discussion cannot hide in the darkness of misunderstanding and hyperbole. In some cases we have found that our fears were not warranted; in other cases we are finding alarming trends that our need immediate attention.

Increasingly this conversation is occurring in a common lexicon, helping us all focus our attentions where they will do the most good.