International Bodies and Agreements Addressing Anthropogenic Ocean Noise

AWI is an active partner of the International Ocean Noise Coalition, an alliance of over 150 groups working for international regulation of ocean noise. With representatives on every continent, IONC was created to establish a global approach to combating human-generated ocean noise. Since 2005, AWI has been working with IONC at the United Nations and in other international forums to raise awareness about the issue and ultimately to advocate for ways to address the problem.

Although noise is a recognized form of pollution, sources of noise in the marine environment are not regulated at an international level. In the past half-decade international institutions have begun to recognize the threat it poses to marine life and have been calling for precautions in the creation of anthropogenic ocean noise.

The following international bodies and agreements address anthroprogenic ocean noise.

United Nations

The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the most far-reaching treaty governing the global marine environment. UNCLOS already provides a solid basis for treating harmful, human-generated noise as a form of pollution that must be reduced and controlled. The agreement defines the term "pollution" as "the introduction by man, directly or indirectly, of substances or energy into the marine environment..., which results or is likely to result in such deleterious effects as harm to living resources..." (Art. 1(1) (4)).

In his 2005 report to the General Assembly, the U.N. Secretary General listed anthropogenic underwater noise as one of five "current major threats to some populations of whales and other cetaceans," and included noise as one of the 10 "main current and foreseeable impacts on marine biodiversity" on the high seas.

The U.N. General Assembly (GA) has passed successive resolutions to address noise, encouraging "further studies and consideration of the impacts of ocean noise on marine living resources" (2005, 2006 and 2007), and "requesting the Division [DOALOS] to compile the peer-reviewed scientific studies it receives from member states [and IGOs in 2009] and to make them available on its website" (2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009). In 2010, the GA Oceans resolution noted underwater noise as a potential threat to living marine resources and affirmed the importance of sound scientific studies in addressing the issue, while the GA Fisheries resolution encouraged further studies, including by the FAO, on its impacts on fish stocks and fishing catch rates.

International Maritime Organization

The IMO recognized the harmful effects of ship-generated ocean noise at the 57th meeting of its Marine Environment and Protection Committee. The issue was later given a dedicated agenda item and work program to develop technical guidelines on ship-quieting technologies as well as potential navigation and operational practices. The 2010 meeting agreed to continue the work and develop a draft guidance document "to reduce the adverse impact of ships’ noise."

The European Parliament and European Union

The European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2004 calling on member states to urgently restrict the use of high-intensity sonar in waters under their jurisdiction until a global assessment of their cumulative environmental impact on marine mammals, fish and other marine life had been completed. In 2008 the EU took up the issue with its Marine Strategy Framework Directive, representing the first international legal instrument to explicitly include man-made underwater noise within the definition of pollution (Article 3 (8)). The Directive lists "the introduction of energy, including underwater noise, at levels that do not adversely affect the marine environment" among the criteria to achieve Good Environmental Status (Annex I (11)) by 2020. Commission Decision 2010/477/EU(2) identified low and mid-frequency impulsive sound and continuous low frequency sound as potentially impactful on marine mammals and other marine life.

Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS)

ASCOBANS' 1994 Conservation and Management Plan set forth mandatory conservation measures to be applied to cetaceans. In 2003, a resolution requested parties to take steps to reduce the impact of noise on cetaceans from seismic surveys, military activities, shipping vessels, acoustic harassment devices and other acoustic disturbances. In 2006, ASCOBANS passed a second resolution on ocean noise, requesting that member states, inter alia, introduce guidelines on measures and procedures for seismic surveys and develop effective mitigation measures to reduce disturbance of, and potential physical damage to, small cetaceans. In 2009 it passed another resolution to mitigate adverse effects from noise generated by offshore renewable energy construction projects.

International Whaling Commission

The Scientific Committee of the IWC, at its 2004 meeting, stated that there is compelling evidence implicating anthropogenic sound as a potential threat to marine mammals, and that this threat is manifested at both regional and ocean-scale levels that could impact populations of animals. The body called for multinational cooperation to monitor ocean noise, and to develop basin-scale and regional noise budgets. Noise has been included in the body’s work since then and in 2009, ocean noise was identified as a priority issue for cetacean research.

Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS)

A 2004 ACCOBAMS resolution recognized man-made ocean noise as a dangerous pollutant that can disturb, injure and kill whales and other marine species. It called on member nations to avoid use of anthropogenic noise in certain areas; to research the issue, including on alternative technologies; and to require the use of best available control technologies and other mitigation measures, in order to reduce adverse impacts. A subsequent resolution adopted in 2007 established a working group to develop tools to assess noise impacts on cetaceans and mitigation measures, while urging parties to adhere to a set of principles to reduce noise impacts. In 2010 a third resolution promulgated guidelines to address noise impact on cetaceans in the ACCOBAMS area.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB)

The 14th Conference of the Parties to the CBD in Nagoya, Japan, recognizing underwater noise as being beyond merely a "new and emerging" issue, requested its Secretariat to compile and synthesize scientific information on anthropogenic underwater noise and its impacts on marine and coastal biodiversity and habitats.