Environment
4:58 pm
Sun July 28, 2013

Conservationists Call For Quiet: The Ocean Is Too Loud!

Originally published on Sun July 28, 2013 6:24 pm

Just about everything that we do in the water makes noise. When we ship goods from country to country, when we explore for oil and gas and minerals, when the military trains with explosives or intense sonar systems — the noise travels.

But these man-made noises are making it impossible for sea creatures to communicate with themselves, something that is integral to their survival. Michael Jasny, the director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says we have to quiet down.

The Defense Council and other conservation groups reached an agreement with a number of oil and gas companies in June to tackle one aspect of this potentially dangerous cacophony.

'Blinding' Marine Life

Jasny is reminded of an old English science-fiction story in which the people of the world wake up one morning to find that they're all blind. "That's what we're doing to whales and other animals in the sea," Jasny tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "We haven't blinded them completely, but we've diminished their sight, we've made it much harder for them to live in their world."

It wasn't always this way. Jasny says there was a time when a blue whale calling off the coast of Massachusetts could be heard by other blue whales straight across the Atlantic Ocean.

But ever since the advent of the propeller engine 150 years ago, that's changed. The noise put into the sea has kept growing.

"We have created a kind of smog in the seas," Jasny says. This smog affects every aspect of the lives of whales and dolphins and other creatures. It causes animals to abandon their habitat, to go silent, deaf and in some cases, to die. "It affects every aspect of their survival and their ability to reproduce," he says.

Shooting For Oil

One of the biggest culprits of underwater noise is the technique used to prospect for oil and gas offshore. Companies use high-volume air guns that are so loud, you can see the water rise and fall when the guns go off.

"Imagine someone setting off a sound like dynamite in your neighborhood, again and again and again, every 10 to 12 seconds, for weeks and months," Jasny says. "This is what we are forcing whales and dolphins to live with."

The settlement reached in June, which Jasny wrote about in The Christian Science Monitor, requires the industry to take several steps to reduce the noise around whale and dolphin habitat in the Gulf of Mexico, and use less invasive forms of exploration.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

We're about to embark on a tour of nature in a variety of forms. First, take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMPBACK WHALE)

LYDEN: You're listening to a humpback whale talking. Though we don't quite know what he's saying, we do know that it's important for whales and other sea creatures to be able to talk to each other in the ocean. But humans are making that conversation nearly impossible, according to Michael Jasny, the director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says we have to quiet down.

MICHAEL JASNY: There's an old English science fiction story in which the people of the world wake up one morning to find that they're all blind. That's what we're doing to whales and other animals in the sea. We haven't blinded them completely, but we've diminished their sight. We've made it much harder for them to live in their world. And it's not just in a few places. It's almost everywhere.

LYDEN: The noise of a cruise ship completely drowns out the sound of this small clan of whales conversing in a matter of seconds.

JASNY: Sound in the ocean travels incredibly well, so that time was when a blue whale calling off of Massachusetts could be heard by other blue whales straight across the Atlantic. Now, unfortunately, that's changed. Since the advent of the propeller engine 150 years ago, the noise that we have been putting into the sea has grown and grown. Just about everything that humans do in the water makes noise - when we ship good from country to country, when we explore for oil and gas and minerals, when the military trains with explosives or intense sonar systems. And this noise travels.

What's happened over the last 150 years is that we have created a kind of smog in the seas. And this is a particularly virulent form of smog. It affects every aspect of the lives of whales and dolphins and other creatures. Noise causes animals to abandon their habitat, to go silent, to stop foraging, to forage poorly, to go deaf and, in some cases, to die. It affects every aspect of their survival and their ability to reproduce.

LYDEN: One of the biggest culprits for under the sea noise is the way we prospect for oil and gas offshore.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGH-VOLUME AIR GUN)

LYDEN: Companies use arrays of high-volume air guns that are so loud you can see the water rise and fall when the guns go off.

JASNY: It's an incredible thing to imagine thinking about someone setting off a sound like dynamite in your neighborhood again and again and again, every 10 to 12 seconds, for weeks and months. This is what we are forcing whales and dolphins and fish to live with.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGH-VOLUME AIR GUN)

LYDEN: That's Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. His conservation group and others like it recently settled a lawsuit with several oil and gas companies that requires the industry to take steps that will reduce the noise around whales' and dolphins' habitat and use less invasive forms of exploration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.