NGOs urge shipping industry to reduce underwater noise to protect marine life

As a meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Construction (SDC 8) opened January 17, the Clean Arctic Alliance called on the IMO to take action to ensure that the direct impact of noise from vessels on the health of marine wildlife, including whales, dolphins and fish is meaningfully reduced. 

“The International Maritime Organization must act urgently to protect marine life by revising its guidelines for the reduction of underwater noise,” said Dr Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance. 

“While the guidelines have been in place since 2014, their lack of uptake and overall failure to reduce underwater noise requires immediate attention. This includes actions that lead to shipping industry-wide measures that significantly reduce the impacts of underwater noise, such as reducing sailing speeds, and the use of equipment such as quieter propellers.”

The agenda of SDC 8 includes several issues dealing with design and construction of ships; agenda item 14 will review the Guidelines for the reduction of underwater noise (MEPC.1/Circ.833) adopted in 2014. 

Several countries, along with NGOs, have submitted papers setting out a workplan and discussing the approach to be followed, including the development of comprehensive next steps. The work is intended to identify the barriers to uptake and implementation of the guidelines, as well as the identification of measures that will further prevent and reduce underwater noise from ships. 

“The workplan put in place at SDC 8 must be ambitious in scope and reflect the urgency needed to address underwater noise from ships as it continues to increase at alarming rates”, said Sarah Bobbe, Arctic Program Manager, Ocean Conservancy. 

“Advancements in new technologies such as quieter propellers have already been developed and can be installed on new ships and retrofitted on existing ships when in drydock for repairs. There are also very simple ways to reduce noise, like slowing ships down. This will bring co-benefits of reduced fuel use and emissions. 

“According to a study by Transport Canada, the World Maritime University and WWF, the existing guidelines have not been effective in reducing underwater noise, namely because of their voluntary, non-regulatory nature. 

“Research from the Arctic Council has recently shown that Arctic underwater noise has significantly increased over the past few years. Ship traffic is also increasing in the Arctic, and given the unique special Arctic environment, underwater noise from ships has a much higher impact than in other parts of the global ocean.” 

“The Arctic is a special case for underwater noise, as sound travels closer to the surface because of cold temperatures, and also travels much further. Marine mammals frequent the ocean surface and spend time in this Arctic sound channel; and many Inuit communities depend upon these animals for food and their livelihoods”, said Dr Prior. 

“Comprehensive next steps are essential to address the delivery of measures which will be effective in reducing underwater noise from ships globally – but this will require sizable ambition from IMO member states. In addition, more stringent regional measures in certain areas, like the Arctic, should be prioritized.”

NGOs urges shipping industry to reduce underwater noise to protect marine life

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