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More science needed on ocean noise

10th March 2002

Scientists need to turn up the volume on ocean-noise studies, says an expert panel. Researchers know remarkably little about the sources of the din beneath the waves, or how it may be affecting whales and other marine life, the U.S. National Academies panel concludes in a study released today. Ironically, the call for more science comes just weeks after a federal judge blocked a research project on submarine sound.

Scientists and conservationists have long worried that the racket created by undersea blasting, whining propellers, or sonar pings could bother marine mammals. Recently, controversy has engulfed U.S. Navy efforts to field a new sonar system after the deaths of some rare beaked whales were linked to sonar (ScienceNOW, 7 January 2002). And environmental and animal-rights groups have convinced the courts to block several research projects that use submarine sound, including a National Science Foundation sea-floor mapping expedition (ScienceNOW, 29 October 2002) and an experiment that was supposed to begin last month off California to test a whale-tracking sonar system.

The National Academies committee, however, says that such research is needed to quiet the controversy. The 11-member panel, led by acoustician George Frisk of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, notes that the effects of human-generated noise on marine mammals is “among the most sensitive and controversial, yet least understood subjects.”

Conventional wisdom holds that ocean waves and commercial shipping are the main sources of noise in the deep sea, the panel notes, but there are few data on how noise levels have changed over time. In addition, “remarkably few details are known about the characteristics of ocean noise, whether it be of human or natural origin.” To fill the gap, the panel says the government should give one federal agency the mandate--and the money--to spearhead ocean-noise research. One priority: tagging whales with special sensors that can monitor how the animals react to different kinds of sounds.

But that is just the kind of study that the recent court rulings may endanger, says Woods Hole biologist Peter Tyack, a lead investigator on the California whale study. “The need for better research is obvious and immediate," he argues. "The ironyhere is that [critics] have convinced the government to add more layers of paperwork.”