Ocean Sound Policies
Page updated September, 2022
Underwater sound may affect marine species or habitats in a number of ways. Marine species might experience behavioral change, acoustic masking, hearing loss, or other physiological effects from sound exposure; the reader is referred to the Effects of Sound Tutorial for an overview of the potential effects to marine life from underwater sound. How sound moves or propagates from a sound source to an animal will also influence the level at which an animal is exposed; the reader is referred to the Science of Sound Tutorial for more details.
Over the last decade, governance documents across the world, including policies, regulations, guidelines, and frameworks, have been introduced at various levels of government, from individual ports, to federal or national levels, to regional or multinational agreements or organizationsLewandowski, J., & Staaterman, E. (2020). International management of underwater noise: Transforming conflict into effective action. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 147(5), 3160–3168. https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0001173.Thomsen, F., Mendes, S., Bertucci, F., Breitzke, M., Ciappi, E., Cresci, A., Debusschere, E., Ducatel, C., Folegot, T., Juretzek, C., Frans-Peter Lam, O’Brien, J., & Santos, M. E. D. (2021). Addressing underwater noise in Europe: Current state of knowledge and future priorities. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5534224.. These governance instruments attempt to reduce the effects of underwater sound on marine species and habitats and can be classified as either impact-focused or source-focusedColbert, B. R. (2020). Trends and developments in international regulation of anthropogenic sound in aquatic habitats. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 147(5), 3100–3107. https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0001139.. Impact-focused policies regulate sound based on potential effects to marine life or habitat, for example, by identifying limits to which animals can be exposed. Source-focused policies regulate sound as a pollutant, addressing the source of the sound and its level of production of acoustic energy in the environment.
This webpage is a companion to the DOSITS webinar “Regulation of Underwater Noise: An International Comparison” that was conducted in November 2020. The content focuses on cetaceans since the majority of noise-related regulations and their enforced policies relate to this species group. In no way are these summaries meant as legal guidance; links are provided for further exploration, and the reader is referred to the individual governance documents to ensure proper understanding and appropriate implementation. If readers are aware of regulations that are not included or have changed, individuals may fill out a Google Form to provide information to the DOSITS Team.
I. Localized Regulations
Port of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
The Port of Vancouver implements the EcoAction Program that discounts fees for vessel moorings and use of port facilities to encourage compliance with voluntary environmental guidelines. In 2017, the Port of Vancouver expanded the EcoAction Program to include vessels certified to have implemented approved quieting technologiesColbert, B. R. (2020). Trends and developments in international regulation of anthropogenic sound in aquatic habitats. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 147(5), 3100–3107. https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0001139.. The EcoAction Program focuses on propeller, rudder, and duct components that have been shown to reduce ship-related underwater sound. It is thus a source-focused guideline designed to improve the acoustic habitat of the Port.
The Port of Vancouver also implements the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) ProgramBurnham, R. E., Vagle, S., O’Neill, C., & Trounce, K. (2021). The Efficacy of Management Measures to Reduce Vessel Noise in Critical Habitat of Southern Resident Killer Whales in the Salish Sea. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8, 664691. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.664691.. Through a series of research projects with a variety of collaborators, the Port developed targeted mitigation measures to reduce noise emissions from transiting vessels through the region, which includes critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whale. The Port requests voluntary slowdowns of bulkers, tankers, ferries, and government vessels to 11 knots and vehicle carriers, cruise, and container vessels to 14.5 knots. These efforts have resulted in the reduction of median sound pressure levels in almost all locations measured and across all frequency ranges testedBurnham, R. E., Vagle, S., O’Neill, C., & Trounce, K. (2021). The Efficacy of Management Measures to Reduce Vessel Noise in Critical Habitat of Southern Resident Killer Whales in the Salish Sea. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8, 664691. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.664691..
II. National Regulations
National regulations exist for several countries, including:
- New Zealand
- The Netherlands
- United Kingdom
- United States of America
The details for a few of these regulations are provided below.
In Australia, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) works under the environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 (EPBC Act) and the Offshore Petroleum Greenhouse Gas Storage Act of 2006 (OPGGS Act) for underwater sound regulation. Impacts and risks to marine species are evaluated and managed to exposure levels “as low as reasonably practical and acceptable” (ALARP). Criteria for evaluating risks from exposure are to be based on the best available science.
Specific actions are required for seismic surveys. Sound sources must institute “soft starts” or “ramp-up,” where lower acoustic energy levels are used at the beginning and then gradually increased. Marine mammal observers are required to look for animals in the immediate vicinity of the survey, and passive acoustic monitoring is recommended. If the sound source is expected to have a per pulse sound exposure level (SEL) of greater than 160 dB re 1 µPa2-s at 1 m, then an observation zone, low power zone, and shutdown zone are defined at ranges of 3 km, 2 km, and 500 m, respectively, with acoustic modeling to validate zone ranges.
Germany’s regulation of underwater sound has focused on offshore wind development, specifically the potential for impact pile driving to cause onset temporary threshold shift (TTS) in harbor porpoise. The Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH) governs offshore wind development under either the Federal Marine Installations Ordinance (SeeAnlV) or under the Offshore Wind Energy Act (WindSeeG) for offshore wind farms and related grid connections that started operation after December 31, 2020. During impact pile driving, a 750-m exclusion zone must be monitored for the presence of marine mammals, and installers must demonstrate that the per-pulse sound levels are below 160 dB re 1 µPa2-s SEL and 190 dB re 1 µPa peak at a range of 750 m.
The Federal Nature Conservation Act prohibits the willful disturbance of animals and requires projects to assess potential impacts to habitat. Harbor porpoises are estimated to experience disturbance, and thus habitat loss, at a range of 8 km from offshore pile driving, based on the perceived level of 160 dB at 750 m.
The legislative document related to underwater sound exposure in The Netherlands is the Nature Conservation Act. At this time, it is focused on harbor porpoise and offshore pile driving. The instrument for estimating exposure risk and population level effects is the Framework for Assessing Ecological and Cumulative Effects. This defines a staged process for estimating risk to individual animals and population level effects. It begins with sound propagation from the sound source, from which a disturbance area is defined by the single strike SEL received level of 140 dB (unweighted, broadband). The number of harbor porpoises that might be disturbed are estimated, as well as the number of days of disturbance. From these estimates, an effects assessment is conducted, including an estimate of population level effects.
The United Kingdom (UK) consists of four countries (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), each of which has their own regulatory body. The regulation for England and Wales is the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is the public body that advises the UK Government and devolved administrations (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) on UK-wide and international nature conservation. JNCC prepared guidance for disturbance of harbor porpoises, which includes assessment of auditory injury and behavioral disturbance, primarily for offshore oil and gas activities. The country’s own Nature Conservation advisers: Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, NatureScot and Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for Northern Ireland, advise their devolved governments on the respective countries’ nature conservation.
United States of America
The United States has several regulations under which effects from underwater sound can be addressed. The two regulations that most directly address impacts to marine species are the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, which for most marine species are administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The reader is referred to the DOSITS webinar “Review of NMFS Regulatory Approach to Underwater Noise” for more details. In addition, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has authority to regulate impacts from underwater sound under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. BOEM’s Center for Marine Acoustics has developed risk assessment frameworks and modeling guidelines for oil and gas and offshore wind development (see also the DOSITS Webinar Consideration of Sound During Offshore Wind Developments).
NMFS has published technical guidance that provides thresholds for hearing loss (the onset of permanent threshold shift (PTS) and temporary threshold shift (TTS)) in marine mammals. Thresholds are defined for impulsive and non-impulsive sounds. The thresholds are specific to hearing groups, including frequency weighting to account for differing hearing sensitivities.
Thresholds for behavioral changes in marine mammals have not been issued in technical guidance, but common practice has been established through permits issued for a variety of sound sources. Behavioral disturbance of marine mammals is estimated to occur at a received level of 160 underwater dB for impulsive and intermittent sounds and at a received level of 120 underwater dB for continuous sounds. In some cases, NMFS has allowed agencies to deviate from these level by setting a probabilistic dose-response function for species groups.
Regulation of sound levels within habitats has been addressed under the Endangered Species Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and the National Marine Sanctuary Act. Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat was defined for the Main Hawaiian Islands insular false killer in 2018, and federal agencies are required to ensure sound levels will not impair false killer whale use or occupancy of the critical habitat. In other cases, such as the loggerhead sea turtle, Atlantic sturgeon, and southern resident killer whale, underwater sound is discussed in regulatory rulemaking as a stressor that could inhibit movement, migration, or foraging. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the primary law that governs marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. Essential fish habitat has been identified for each life stage of nearly 1,000 federally managed species to include habitat where fish spawn, breed, feed, or grown to maturity. Federal agencies must minimize or prevent impacts to essential fish habitat. In laws such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the National Marine Sanctuary Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies are required to assess the impacts of all stressors on the marine environment, which can include impacts from sound. The National Marine Sanctuary Program is leading efforts to monitor underwater sound through a network of monitoring stations to detect changes and understand the current soundscape along the U.S. east coast.
III. Regional or International Agreements
International agreements address underwater sound and its potential impacts, including:
- Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOMBAMS; https://accobams.org/)
- Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS; https://www.ascobans.org/)
- Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD; https://www.cbd.int/)
- Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area/Helsinki Convention (HELCOM; https://helcom.fi)
- Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR; https://www.ccamlr.org/en/organisation/home-page)
- European Union Marine Strategic Framework Directive (MSFD; ec.europa.eu)
- International Maritime Organization (IMO; https://www.imo.org/)
- International Whaling Commission (IWC; https://iwc.int/home)
- North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO; https://www.nato.int/)
- OSPAR (Oslo/Paris) Commission (OSPAR; https://www.ospar.org/)
The details for a few of these agreements are provided belowLewandowski, J., & Staaterman, E. (2020). International management of underwater noise: Transforming conflict into effective action. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 147(5), 3160–3168. https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0001173.Colbert, B. R. (2020). Trends and developments in international regulation of anthropogenic sound in aquatic habitats. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 147(5), 3100–3107. https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0001139.Thomsen, F., Mendes, S., Bertucci, F., Breitzke, M., Ciappi, E., Cresci, A., Debusschere, E., Ducatel, C., Folegot, T., Juretzek, C., Frans-Peter Lam, O’Brien, J., & Santos, M. E. D. (2021). Addressing underwater noise in Europe: Current state of knowledge and future priorities. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5534224.
Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOMBAMS) and Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS)
These agreements are founded on the United Nations (UN) environmental treaty Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS; https://www.cms.int/). This is a global platform for the conservation and sustainable use of migratory species and their habitats. In 2017, CMS published guidelines to help regulators evaluate Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and the manner in which underwater sound exposure is addressed. The CMS Family Guidelines on Environmental Impact Assessments for Marine Noise-generating Activities include technical information on noise-generating activities, species specific groups and their vulnerabilities, and exposure levels.
Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area/Helsinki Convention (HELCOM)
The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Convention or Helsinki Convention (HELCOM) commits the signatory nations to protect the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution from land, air, and sea. It also commits the signatories to take measures on conserving habitats and biological diversity and for the sustainable use of marine resources. HELCOM has recognized underwater noise as a pressure on the Baltic environment and its marine species. The Baltic Sea Information on the Acoustic Soundscape (BIAS) project collected soundscape data and created guidelines for monitoring continuous noise, as well as developing a regional registry for impulsive noise events.
The European Union (EU) implemented the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) in 2008. It requires Member States to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) as measured by eleven descriptors, one of which is energy, which includes is underwater sound.
There are two indicators of GES for underwater sound:
- Distribution in time and space of loud low- and mid-frequency impulsive sounds
Designed to target impulsive sound sources, this indicator evaluates the proportion of days and their distribution within a calendar year in which anthropogenic sound sources exceed levels that are likely to cause significant impacts on marine mammals, measured over the frequency band of 10 Hz to 10 kHz.
- Continuous low-frequency sound
This indicator is focused on habitat quality, measuring the average sound level over a year within the 1/3 octave bands centered at 63 and 125 Hz.
A Technical Group is working to establish GES thresholds for the two indicators, with the goals of harmonizing the regulations of Member States and providing guidance on research priorities.
International Maritime Organization (IMO)
The IMO is the UN agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of pollution by ships. In 2014, the IMO ratified guidelines for the reduction of sound from commercial ships, focusing on propellers, hull form, on-board machinery, and various operational and maintenance recommendations.
The IMO has also worked with member states to adopt specific measures to protect marine species. Most of these measures relate to ship strike risk (reducing vessel speed and moving traffic lanes out of high density habitat), but an added bonus is the reduction of underwater sound within whale habitat. The IMO amended the traffic separation scheme in the approach to Boston harbor to move the traffic lanes to a region with lower densities of North Atlantic right whales and other cetaceans. Real-time autodetection buoys are deployed in between the incoming and outgoing shipping channels to alert mariners of the presence of right whales, and LNG tankers are required to reduce their speed in areas around buoys that have detected whales.
- Decision Makers > Tutorials > Science of Sound
- Decision Makers > Tutorials > Effects of Sound
- Decision Makers > Webinar Archive > Regulation of Underwater Noise: An International Comparison
- Decision Makers > Webinar Archive > Commercial Vessel Traffic
- Decision Makers > Webinar Archive > Noise Abatement Systems
- Potential Effects > Anthropogenic Sound Sources > Commercial Vessel Traffic
- Potential Effects > Anthropogenic Sound Sources > Seismic Airguns
- Potential Effects > Ship Quieting Technologies
- People and Sound > How is sound used to explore for oil and gas?
- Technology Gallery > Real-time passive acoustic sensors
- Audio Gallery > Harbor Porpoise
- Audio Gallery > Killer Whale
- Audio Gallery > Seismic Airgun
- Hot Topic > Killer Whales and Vessel Noise
- BMU (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit) (2013). Konzept für den Schutz der Schweinswale vor Schallbelastungen bei der Errichtung von Offshore-Windparks in der deutschen Nordsee (Schallschutzkonzept), (In German): 33 pp. https://www.bfn.de/sites/default/files/BfN/service/Dokumente/positionspapiere/schallschutzkonzept_bmu.pdf
- Finneran, J.J., E.E. Henderson, D.S. Houser, K. Jenkins, S. Kotecki, and J. Mulsow. (2017). Criteria and Thresholds for U.S. Navy Acoustic and Explosive Effects Analysis (Phase III). Technical report by Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific). 183 p. https://nwtteis.com/portals/nwtteis/files/technical_reports/Criteria_and_Thresholds_for_U.S._Navy_Acoustic_and_Explosive_Effects_Analysis_June2017.pdf.
|⇡1, ⇡7||Lewandowski, J., & Staaterman, E. (2020). International management of underwater noise: Transforming conflict into effective action. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 147(5), 3160–3168. https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0001173.|
|⇡2, ⇡9||Thomsen, F., Mendes, S., Bertucci, F., Breitzke, M., Ciappi, E., Cresci, A., Debusschere, E., Ducatel, C., Folegot, T., Juretzek, C., Frans-Peter Lam, O’Brien, J., & Santos, M. E. D. (2021). Addressing underwater noise in Europe: Current state of knowledge and future priorities. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5534224.|
|⇡3, ⇡4, ⇡8||Colbert, B. R. (2020). Trends and developments in international regulation of anthropogenic sound in aquatic habitats. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 147(5), 3100–3107. https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0001139.|
|⇡5, ⇡6||Burnham, R. E., Vagle, S., O’Neill, C., & Trounce, K. (2021). The Efficacy of Management Measures to Reduce Vessel Noise in Critical Habitat of Southern Resident Killer Whales in the Salish Sea. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8, 664691. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.664691.|