Silent Sea: U.S. Strives For Quieter Oil Drilling Tactics In the Ocean

Offshore Drilling Platform and Sun

For years, the noisy clamor caused by oil drilling, shipping, and construction has continued to grow. Studies show spikes in stress among marine animals living in these drilled waters such as crabs with jumbled directional signals and whales that try to escape the noise by swimming onto beaches.

One American federal agency is striving to cut the commotion by drafting a proposal that would enforce noise reductions across several activities including dredging and shipping off the nation’s coast and oil exploration.

Richard Merrick is a chief science adviser to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries agency and one of the writers of the 10-year proposed plan, “We’ve been worried about ocean noise for decades, since the 1970s. The question is, what should we do now?” He said. Merrick’s agency hopes to publicly reveal their plan later in the year.

So far, the plan demands limits on noise and the creation of a listening system. In addition to this, the founding of an online archive that holds data on thousands of hours of noise recordings has been proposed. Scientists could use this archive to cross-reference against information about the marine animals and the places they live and gather. Furthermore, the agency’s plan presses for more research on the effects of loud noise on marine life as well as more communication between environmental groups, industry groups, the government, and the military.

Some information is limited since the NOAA has only evaluated 17 percent of the marine life it is instructed to observe. The subject of noise is becoming more important as the seas of the Arctic continue to open more to development and shipping with ice melting as a result of global warming.

Those in support of the project know that the ocean has never been truly quiet. Sounds like thunder and whale songs have graced the ocean for millions of years, but marine life learned to live with these sounds over time.

Jason Gedamke, head of the NOAA’s ocean acoustics program said, “A hundred years ago the ocean wasn’t quiet, it was a dynamic acoustic place. But now there is a lot more human noise out there.” Noise created man has radically raised the ocean’s sound level. Dredging, ice breaking, pile driving, seismic air guns, and energy-making windmills have all caused this level to grow. Off the California coast, researchers have found that the noise in the area has grown several-fold over the last few decades partly because of an upsurge in shipping.

Man-made noise can obstruct the sounds made by the marine life that they use to hunt, communicate, and steer themselves around the ocean. Blue whales sing to locate everything from mates to food. Bottlenose dolphins can find objects by making their own songs and having the sound waves bounce off of the things around them. Both fish and crab use the sounds of the reef as a compass.

In the past, noise permits were always mandatory for singular events such as drilling. But the plan drafted by NOAA would be the first ever to impose long-standing rules on noise levels for all activity.

Article written by HEI contributor Briana Steptoe.

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