The Guardian , 13 February 2006
Map underwater noise to protect
marine life, say scientists
It wants ministers to introduce new regulations to protect whales, dolphins and other sea life, which are affected because they rely on sound to communicate, feed and navigate.
Peter Liss, professor of environmental science at the University of East Anglia, who chaired the group, said: "The sea is a much noisier place than it was 10 years ago and there is a growing body of evidence that it could cause these animals physiological harm."
Powerful naval sonar devices that send shockwaves through the water were blamed by some for disorienting the whale that swam into the River Thames last month, though the Ministry of Defence denied this and the resulting autopsy found no physical damage. Several strandings and mass beachings of whales have been associated with military exercises, though there is rarely direct evidence to link them.
Prof Liss said: "The military or the oil and gas industry often get the blame but lots of activities let off sounds in the sea." Scientific research ships, ferries and construction companies that use piledriving equipment to erect offshore wind turbines could all affect whales, he said.
The results of the report, prepared by the government inter-agency committee on marine science and technology, will feed into the forthcoming marine bill, a white paper on which is due later this year. It calls for the expansion of existing treaties, permits for noisy activities and wider cooperation between the relevant groups. The bulk of existing information on sources of underwater sound is classified for military or commercial reasons.
The report also recommends carrying out controversial "controlled exposure" experiments to see how noise affects whales and dolphins. It says: "We realise there are ethical and political difficulties with this sort of work, but we consider that the potential gains outweigh the disadvantages."
It is well known that very loud noises, such as those caused by seismic surveys, damage the hearing of whales directly, but more subtle effects on behaviour are harder to pinpoint. Sound waves travel long distances through water so fainter sounds might distract and disorient animals further away.