NGOs urge IMO to adopt mandatory measures to cut underwater noise impact on marine life

The Clean Arctic Alliance, comprising 20 not-for-profit organisations, called for urgent action to address the impact of underwater noise from ships on Arctic wildlife, as a meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Construction opens in London.

SDC9 meeting; Image credit IMO

A previous IMO meeting, MEPC 76 in June 2021, tasked the Ship Design and Construction (SDC) Sub-committee with revising the IMO’s 2014 Guidelines on the Reduction of Underwater Noise from Shipping, and to identify next steps and a program of action to further prevent and reduce underwater noise. The SDC committee found that the chief barrier that limited the uptake and implementation of the 2014 guidelines was their non-mandatory nature.

“This week, the IMO must urgently address the impacts of underwater noise pollution on the health of marine wildlife, including whales, dolphins and fish”, said Clean Arctic Alliance Lead Advisor Dr Sian Prior.

“Given the voluntary nature of the IMO’s underwater noise guidelines is the biggest barrier to their implementation, both the program of action and next steps identified by the committee during this week’s meeting must include recommendations for compulsory measures.”

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During this week’s meeting, a paper submitted by Canada proposes that a working group be established during SDC 9 to complete the review of the guidelines, and prioritize the development of an action program to best reduce underwater noise. This work could then be presented at MEPC 80 in July 2023.

A survey of the commercial shipping industry, conducted in 2019 by Environics Research and the World Maritime University, overseen by Transport Canada, the Chamber of Shipping of America, and WWF Canada, found that the non-regulatory/non-mandatory nature of the guidelines was a primary barrier to uptake. SDC 8, held in January 2022, a Working Group confirmed these findings when it agreed that the lack of regulations was a key barrier and was limiting uptake of the guidelines.

“Ultimately, the IMO must agree to the development of mandatory measures, such as the preparation and implementation of noise management plans for every ship, so that the overall failure to reduce underwater noise is addressed globally,” said Sarah Bobbe, Arctic Program Manager, at Ocean Conservancy.

“Some potential mandatory measures include requiring ships to develop and implement a Noise Management Plan, which is envisioned in the draft revised guidelines, and requiring ships to achieve quantitative underwater noise targets, which could be phased in over time, or reduced over some period of time, to achieve an overall reduction in ship-based underwater noise.”

A study released in October 2022 confirmed that underwater noise from shipping continues to roughly double each decade in the ocean.

“In addition to global measures, even more stringent regional measures to reduce acoustic pollution from vessels in areas such as the Arctic will be necessary,” continued Bobbe.

The Arctic is a special case for underwater noise because of how sound propagates over long distances, and how it can impact marine life and in turn, the Inuit communities who depend on wildlife and the sea for livelihoods and culture.”

“Some IMO member states are now moving towards regulating underwater noise in their waters, which risks leading to differing sets of regulations throughout the ocean, creating a lack of clarity and certainty for the shipping industry,” said Prior.

“Inclusion of recommended mandatory measures in a programme of action agreed this week would signal interest from IMO member states in levelling the playing field and help lead to the creation of a singular set of expectations for industry to follow, while a global regulation would also ensure that countries that care about reducing the impact of underwater noise pollution on sensitive marine life won’t be penalised for regulating commercial shipping noise in their waters.”