Invisible to the human eye, ocean noise pollution has become one of the deadliest threats against marine animals and the health of the ocean. To learn more about its impact, I spoke with Aurore Morin, IFAW’s Marine Conservation campaigner in France. Below is our discussion on the complexities of ocean noise and ways we can better protect marine life.
K: What is the biggest campaign that you are currently working on and what kind of challenges do you face on a regular basis?
A: The biggest campaign I’m focused on right now is reducing underwater noise in Europe created by human activity like commercial shipping. The biggest challenge I face on a daily basis is that the public is not aware of the issue. We interviewed people in the streets to ask them if they knew about underwater noise and only one out of five people knew what it was.
K: Wow, I didn’t realize ocean noise was that unknown in the public eye. Making changes on a legislative level must be very difficult when the majority of the public is unaware of this issue.
A: Yes, a big part of our job is to raise awareness. It’s becoming better now mostly in France because the Ministry for Environment is really active on the issue and willing to do something about it. And we had various media pieces that were recently published on ocean noise, so I think global public awareness is growing as well on the issue.
K: Can you explain where ocean noise comes from and why it’s such a serious threat to marine animals?
A: Ocean noise pollution comes from human activity like commercial shipping, seismic surveys, oil exploration, and military sonar. All of these noises cause serious threats to marine life. This noise pollution impacts a wide range of marine species, we’re not just talking about whales and dolphins. It’s all the marine species. Ocean noise dramatically changes an animal’s behavior. It causes stress and drives the animal out of its habitat. It reduces an animal’s ability to communicate, navigate, locate prey, avoid predators, and find mates. All the aspects of an animal’s life is disrupted by human produced ocean noise. In the worst cases, it can lead to physical injuries and even death following long, loud impact.
K: Does ocean noise mostly affect marine mammals or does it impact other animals like fish and sea turtles?
A: Every animal that lives underwater is impacted. Ocean noise impacts dolphins, seals, fish, squid, crustacean, and sea turtles. Like I said, every marine animal is impacted because they all use sound to hunt, find mates, reproduce, and communicate with their babies.
K: What is IFAW doing to minimize ocean noise pollution and help create momentum on this campaign?
A: There is currently no international regulation on ocean noise, so we are working to change this. Our team collaborates with government officials to implement stronger legislation that minimizes ocean noise pollution. The most effective solution that we advocate is to implement speed restrictions for ships because this not only reduces ocean noise, but also minimizes gas emission and ship strikes. We’re also advising that ships are built with optimized noise reduction design. We’re also advising that France follows the example of the Port of Vancouver which has introduced incentives to reduce ocean noise pollution. Ships that have reduced their noise pollution get reductions in port fees. We’re trying to replicate this model throughout France and Europe because it works. Incentives motivate people to make positive change.
K: If an individual wasn’t aware of this issue and now wants to do something to help, what would you recommend?
A: We advise people to become a responsible consumer. You have the right and you have the power to create impactful change through your consumer habits. Think about where your purchases come from and try to buy locally. Buy fruits or vegetables from your own country that weren’t shipped from the other side of the world. Shop for products at local stores. It’s not possible for everything because we live in a globalized world, but do your best to buy local. That way, you know your products came from maybe trucks, but not from ships that producing ocean noise pollution.
K: That’s a really great point because I feel like we all value convenience and are so used to going online to quickly buy items.
A: Yes. Try to look at your local shops and see if you can find it there rather than purchasing online. Of course, you have to leave the comfort of your own home, but we just all have to make a better effort. And this is one way that we can make a difference.
K: I’ve heard people refer to the ocean as the world’s life source because it regulates carbon dioxide, produces two thirds of our oxygen, and is rich with biodiversity. If the ocean ecosystem continues to collapse, what kind of consequences would this have on people and animals?
A: Very bad consequences. All of the threats going on right now, like ocean noise, acidification, and overfishing are leading to the emptying of the ocean. The ocean is the top place where we can find life. Water is the first thing that you need to have life. If the ocean dies, it’s catastrophic. Emptied and lifeless. That’s why we need to protect species underwater and preserve the ocean to maintain life.
K: During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been an increase in animal sightings as human activity slows down in wild spaces and cities. How has COVID-19 impacted marine mammals? Do we know if the ocean is any cleaner or safer for marine life?
A: Indeed, there has been numerous sightings of animals in city streets deserted by their inhabitants because of shutdowns imposed to fight against COVID-19. I guess they are taking advantage of the absence of human presence to enjoy their habitat without disturbance like vehicle traffic! It has been quite the same situation for marine mammals, as the pandemic offered a break from anthropogenic underwater noise. Marine traffic has slowed and thus loud ships, like container ships or cruise ships, have stopped their racket. Research is on the way to determine the exact reduction of marine noise during this period, but what has been assumed so far is that the noise environment in our oceans during the global shutdown of 2020 was close to what the oceans would have sounded like 150 years ago, which means a healthier environment for the marine fauna.
K: What lessons do you think we can learn from COVID-19?
A: I think this global health crisis has offered us a unique opportunity to reflect on the consequences of human activity for marine life. It would be good if we could take into account all the benefits that happened for the animals into the future reflection to rebuild our economy, to make it greener and more sustainable.
K: Do you have any final thoughts or messaging that you want people to know?
A: The good news with ocean noise pollution is that when the origin of the noise stops, the pollution stops immediately. There is a lot to do, but I am hopeful that we can make a difference, on the legislative side and local side with the support of people who care.