Workshop on Ocean Noise Science, Regulations, and Practice

I’m just synthesizing the conversations, data, and information presented at a workshop co-sponsored by the California Gray Whale Coalition and Ocean Conservation Research at the Oakland offices of the Center for Biological Diversity on Monday, April 11. The purpose of the workshop was to examine the disparity between regulations and the “best available science” upon which effective regulations depend, and the disparity between the “best available science” and the rush of new technologies being advanced into the ocean as we industrialize extraction industries in the ocean for greater yields.

Our incentive for participating hinges on two encounters we had over this last year. The first was a conversation I had with a scientists from the oil-industry funded “Joint Industries Project” regarding the alarming expansion of underwater digital communication systems being introduced into offshore oil fields. I have been trying to get someone from NOAA Fisheries to pay a little attention to this growing concern. The problem is that any one piece of this particular equipment doesn’t trigger regulatory thresholds – but as the systems are used as networks of dozens of these pieces of equipment, the network should be evaluated as concurrent noise sources – which in sum would need to be regulated.

The second encounter was with NOAA Fisheries Chief Administrator Eileen Sobeck in November of last year. A small retinue of us from Oceana, NRDC, and OCR visited her to review concerns we had about “Incidental Harassment Authorizations” (IHAs) her office was reviewing about seismic surveys in the Atlantic. There were a number of shortcomings about the IHAs which we detailed in a joint letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. But foremost was their not using the “best available science” to review the permits, and the regulations had no provisions for considering the impacts of concurrent operations. Furthermore, Ms. Sobeck clarified to us that in terms of “the best available science” she had to “draw the line somewhere” (we figured she had drawn the line somewhere back in 2007). She also indicated that while there was no mechanism for considering duplicative, or concurrent noise sources she had no incentive to devise one.

Unfortunately the science has not been done to determine the impacts of concurrent high-frequency communication systems, and the regulations have not been established to account for duplicative, concurrent assaults. Thus the gaps between regulation, science, and practice – and the motivation for the workshop.

Co-hosting the meeting was Suzanne Arnold from the Gray Whale Coalition.  Participants were: David Bain from Orca Conservancy Ken Balcomb from the Center for Whale Research, Brettny Hardy from Earth Justice , David Henkin from Earth Justice Hawaii, Mike Hudson from Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, Michael Jasny from NRDC, Catherine Kuhlman former California Ocean Protection Council Executive Director, Deputy Secretary for Oceans and Coastal Policy, Bruce Martin with JASCO Applied Sciences, Kristen Monsell- Center for Biological Diversity, and Val Veirs with Beam Reach Research.

Dr. Arthur Popper from the Popper Labs at the University of Maryland delivered a keynote address about the effects of sound on fish and invertebrates.

Workshop Break Time!All in all we got a lot of work done – with a broad view of the topics. We’re using the workshop as a springboard for a “White Paper” on the gaps with the hopes that it proves informative to regulators and science funders.

Unfortunately conspicuously missing from the workshop were folks from the regulatory community. We serially invited 27 staff members from NOAA Fisheries with an offer to cover transportation and board. None were available that day.

We will share the White Paper and recommendations once they are complete.