Ocean Noise Policy-Making: A Case Study From Canada
Marine mammals such as whales and other cetaceans are both ecologically and culturally important. This has led many countries around the world to individually and collectively act in favor of their protection. Many countries have banned whaling (though some continue the practice). And many other countries are working on mitigating the negative impacts of bycatch from general fisheries on marine mammals. Such efforts are admirable on many levels, and have gone a great distance to help such causes. But one of the most pressing current challenges is to “quantify and mitigate the sublethal effects of human activities” on marine mammals.
One of the sublethal effects that is a particular challenge for conservation and management is human-caused noise. Indeed, it’s a subject that we’ve covered at some length on Faunalytics. A great deal of research on noise has focused on “high energy, impulsive sounds” such as military sonar. But increasing attention is being paid to “chronic” noise. This is more difficult to manage and regulate, but may be just as bad as other more tangible pollutants.
This review of the effects of ocean noise looks particularly at the situation in Canada. One reason for this is that Canada needs to develop frameworks for noise that apply to three oceans—”the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic.” Secondly, the researchers note that chronic noise requires different management tools from tools that mitigate more sporadic, high-impact noise. What’s more, Canada is starting to assess the impact of multiple kinds of stressor simultaneously. This will create an additional layer of complexity for scientists and managers.
The researchers note that, in Canada (as in other developed nations), policy has focused on two key goals in terms of ocean noise: promoting the welfare of individual animals, and ensuring that human activity doesn’t deplete species or habitats irreversibly. The authors also note that Canada in particular has taken a “progressive stance” by listing ocean noise as a threat to Pacific humpback whales and northern and southern resident killer whales. This is something the U.S. has declined to do.
There are, however, a number of industrial developments—both proposed and underway—that have the potential to “dramatically alter the acoustic environment.” There are some policies in place to help mitigate this. But the authors emphasize that there are “very large science gaps” in the ability to assess and mitigate impacts of ocean noise. And there is no comprehensive legal framework for the marine environment across Canada.
Using a variety of examples, the authors show how Marine Protected Areas and critical habitat designation under the Species At Risk Act could be potentially effective in mitigating such negative impacts. But as yet, they remain “under-utilized vehicles for the programmatic, multi-sectoral protection of habitat from acoustic disturbance.” But, such policies would only apply to species at risk. More promising would be marine spatial planning. But this requires the co-operation among a variety of agencies with authority for maximum effect. Likewise, the authors note that there needs to be investment in science to better understand ocean noise. This, in turn, would guide the policy that the agencies (hopefully) work together to implement.
The authors of this review note that this research was undertaken specifically to apply to the Canadian context. But they also note that it “may be universally applicable.” They note specifically that “researchers in all countries struggle with the same technical and logistical constraints of understanding the effects of sound on highly mobile, highly migratory species in a costly-to-study ocean environment.”
Canadian advocates and conservationists can pressurize the government to create a comprehensive policy applicable to a variety of species—both protected and not-yet-at-risk. This paper provides ample evidence of the potential effectiveness of such action. And it also makes a strong case for such action in countries with a similar context to Canada’s.