Marine Mammal Protection Against Human Noise Pollution Under the MMPA

Jackie Meyle is a student in Coastal and Ocean Master's program. She graduated from Drury University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Advertising and Public Relations. She has developed interests in the environment and conservation through her education in the Coastal and Ocean Master's program. 

Throughout the centuries, humans have traveled over the ocean for trade, employment, and more. Technological improvements have increased the speed of travel and have developed the use sonar and seismic testing to map the seafloor. Although we are now able search for oil and gas reservoirs, collect valuable data about the ocean, and many other things, but these activities have polluted our oceans with noise.

Noise pollution from human activities has a negative impact on marine life. Marine animals rely on their own acoustics to navigate, hunt, reproduce, and communicate. Noise pollution disrupts these behaviors by interfering with their acoustics which can reduce communication ranges and masks sounds of interest.

In 1972, then-President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which was enacted on October 21, 1972. The MMPA was created in response to increasing concerns about the decline of marine mammal populations caused by human activities. The Act protects all marine mammals and makes it illegal to “take” marine mammals without a permit, meaning people cannot feed, hunt, harass, capture, or kill a marine mammal or part of a marine mammal.

Scientists have linked several incidences of marine mammal mass strandings to the increased noise caused by human activities. These strandings have an effect on marine populations, which goes against what the MMPA is trying to accomplish. Policy makers need to work to ensure that marine life is being protected under the MMPA from the noises caused by human activity in the ocean.

Today’s society is more aware of animal welfare issues due to the increase in media coverage. This rise of awareness has given way to new trends such as the “Blackfish effect”, coined from the severe backlash SeaWorld received from the public after the documentary Blackfish by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. This increase in awareness has caused people to propose stricter regulations on noise pollution so that marine populations can be protected. For example, in 2015 environmental activists protested Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

But, this is a difficult thing to accomplish because there has also been an increase of oil and gas production. According to the Institute for Energy Research, global oil production growth increased in 2014 by over 2 million barrels per day, which was more than double than its 10-year average. This growth has given rise to more seismic surveys in order to find oil and gas reservoirs. Society places high values on these products. Oil and gas are important to society because they are a part of everyday life. Oil and gas are used to fuel cars, heating, and electricity. It is difficult to ask for stricter regulations when one of the major causes of noise pollution is essential to our everyday lives.

Global Shipping Routes from Kate Wheeling (Wheeling, 2014) 

The image above displays the global shipping route across the ocean. According to the Environment and Natural Resource division of the Government of Northwest Territories, from the 1980s, ships going through the Northwest Passage have become an annual transit. The number of ships that go through this passage has increased by four each year in the 1980s, but has risen to 20-30 ships per year through the years 2009 and 2013.

It is impossible to eliminate noise pollution in the ocean completely. However, there are opportunities to improve legislation by appealing to policy makers to ensure marine mammals are better protected from noise pollution. There are multiple alternatives that would reduce the amount of noise polluting our oceans.

One alternative would be to invest in new, quieter technologies that would have less of an impact on marine life. Marine vibroseis is an example of a new technology that has the potential to minimize the impacts of seismic surveys. This technology still needs to be tested to see if it produces data that is comparable to the current methods being used.

A second alternative is to have marine sanctuaries in critical habitats such as areas for migration or breeding. This would ensure that areas used for migration and breeding are not being affected by noise pollution and could reduce the amount of marine mammals affect by noise pollution.

A third alternative would be to require ramp-ups for all marine vessels. Ramping-up the airgun array sound levels is a technique that is used to let animals that are sensitive to sound to leave the area.

A fourth alternative would be to fund research on how to improve noise reduction methods (IDW). This would help lawmakers understand the best way to reduce the noise pollution in the ocean.


  1. I imagine the increase in maritime traffic has had a big impact on noise pollution under water. Ships are very loud, especially older ships. Regulations for noise reduction on ships may be challenging to implement because it may be too difficult to retrofit or too costly to update some of the older ships for noise reduction. I think a good alternative is to require quieter technology for new ships being built. That way the old and noisier technology eventually gets phased out. I also like the ramp-ups alternative; that seems like a cost effective and short-term solution for this problem.

  2. I liked how you touched on the increased public awareness centered on environmental and conservation efforts. I think that is true and will hopefully make it easier to pass laws protecting wildlife. With regards to gas and oil exploration, I think they should be required to invest in quieter technologies. It doesn't seem like we are at a point to significantly decrease our oil and gas consumption, but if they could perform their tasks in a quieter fashion, that could have some positive impacts on marine life. Ramp-ups also seem like a beneficial solution for ships passing through areas where marine mammals are present.

  3. It is very troubling to see mass stranding events of iconic marine mammals. I would have to think that noise pollution absolutely has a role to play in some of these occurrences. I think a hybrid approach of some of the alternatives presented would be effective in lessening the impact of noise pollution. As Kathy, suggested new vessels could be required to be built with quieter technologies. Over time, the older, louder vessels will be phased out. Simultaneously, an increase of awareness of breeding grounds and migration routes can help to minimize close contact with these animals during critical months of the year. I look forward to what kind of research is done on this topic in the future.

  4. Although there is no doubt that noise pollution in the open ocean plays a large (if not the largest) role in marine mammal strandings, it doesn't seem to get the same degree of media attention or "polluter shaming" that physical and chemical pollution of the ocean receive from Environmental groups. Strandings get plenty of local news coverage and people hate to see marine mammal deaths, but I hardly hear talk of seismic noise blasting as the culprit. I wonder if this is a concerted effort by shipping and oil and gas stakeholders to minimize public and legislative awareness, versus address the issue. I agree with the previous comments that retrofitting old ships is probably disqualifyingly costly, but I do like the phase-in method proposed for new vessels. I also have a hard time being sensitive to oil and gas companies- some of the riches users of marine resources- when costs are used as an argument. In many cases, even millions of dollars is literally a drop in the bucket. I think that energy companies of all kinds should be held to the standard of best available technology when offshore drilling and sonar is involved. Since it seems relatively new on the legislative agenda, it will be really interesting to see where this problem goes.

  5. I feel that marine mammals would benefit from a combination of the alternatives that you provided. Using new technology along with the "ramping-up" procedure would be a good combination to help with noise pollution. Also, once new technologies are invented, the federal government could provide compensation up to a certain percentage for using such technology on ship. Just because there is new technology, does not mean that it'll be used. Additionally, to provide incentive for ships to use newer technology, the government could provide some type of tax credit for their efforts.

  6. I find the social dynamic behind this issue really interesting. From my own perspective, I was aware of noise pollution and their effects, but mainly because my educational background and interests. It doesn't seem like an issue the average person would be aware of, but when you mention Blackfish the dynamic changes. People are captured by the drama and danger facing flagship species such as orcas. Time will tell whether the public concern for flagship species will outweigh the desire for gas and oil. I'm also interested as to how much of an impact noise pollution from the construction of wind farming has on marine mammals.

  7. I think awareness is the most important strategy for overcoming some of the political obstacles of protecting marine mammals from noise impacts. The public is a valuable tool and can often move issues from the bottom of the agenda to being a priority. In the case of noise pollution, advocacy and media have been helpful in raising awareness. However, technology is also important and must play a part. I like your alternatives in this area because they are achievable and will likely result in less implementation time and reduced marine mammal mortality.

  8. I really enjoyed your discussion about the "Blackfish effect." I think that effect is really important to this issue because people hold a lot of value into mammals. However, I also agree that getting rid of ocean noise pollution is unrealistic but actions could be taken to reduce it. I think the most important alternative is technology advancement for this issue. Technology could change how ship emit sounds so that mammals and the economy could live in the same ocean.


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