WWF: Canada urged to tackle underwater noise pollution this year

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada, one of Canada’s largest conservation organizations, is urging the federal government to deliver a strong plan in 2024 to protect marine species from underwater noise pollution.


With Canada’s oceans getting louder — causing increasing harm to marine species — the federal government initially committed to release the first draft of its Ocean Noise Strategy in the summer 2021. The deadline for the draft Ocean Noise Strategy was later changed to 2022 with “the final strategy expected to be launched in 2023”.

As of January 2024, even the draft strategy has yet to be released.

Now, as Parliament sits for the first time in 2024, WWF-Canada is urging the government to not let another year go by without delivering the plan to protect whales, walrus and other sea life. For this reason, the organization is launching #LessNoise campaign.

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In the darkness of the underwater world, many species rely on sound to sense their environment, navigate, communicate, find food and mates, and avoid danger. The impacts of intensifying industrialization of the ocean — increasing ship traffic, deafening seismic blasts from oil and gas activities, port expansions and the roar of marine construction — are being documented across marine ecosystems.

Underwater noise pollution can disrupt normal behaviors, impair feeding, mask communication, interfere with echolocation, increase stress levels, and even contribute to fatal ship strikes and strandings of whales.

“Some parts of the ocean are more than 100 times louder than they would be naturally — and with human activity on the ocean continuing to intensify, Canada needs a strong plan to turn down the volume now,” Hussein Alidina, WWF-Canada’s lead specialist for marine conservation, said.

“WWF-Canada is calling for not only the release of the delayed Ocean Noise Strategy, but for one strong enough to deliver meaningful, measurable and urgent action that whales and other species impacted by underwater noise pollution desperately need.”

To hit the right note, Canada’s Ocean Noise Strategy should:

  • Establish noise limits for activities we know have a negative effect on soundscapes, such as shipping and oil and gas exploration. They should be informed by biological limits (the volume different species are able to withstand without adverse impacts) and by local and Indigenous knowledge.
  • Take an area-based approach that includes noise reduction targets in regions that are already excessively loud and noise limits in rapidly developing areas, such as the Arctic. Canada should also prioritize safeguarding protected ocean areas and key habitats for at-risk species.
  • Incentivize the development and adoption of quieter technologies while immediately implementing operational measures that can reduce noise such as ship slowdowns in critical habitats.
  • Put in place regulations for ongoing monitoring of noise levels and enforcement of noise limits and reduction targets. Without teeth, it’s unlikely Canada’s Ocean Noise Strategy will help mitigate noise pollution.

Increasing ship traffic worldwide is more than doubling underwater noise every decade.

Specifically, excessive noise can cause vocal beluga whales to become separated from their calves and put endangered North Atlantic right whales at increased risk of fatal ship strikes. Underwater noise pollution has been shown to mask echolocation and communication between the 75 remaining members of the critically endangered southern resident whale population.

What is more, relatively quiet waters in northern B.C. are bracing for a massive increase in ship traffic and noise from new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. This could have detrimental impacts on orcas, humpback, and fin whales.

In the Arctic, where walrus mother and calves recognize each other by voice and bowhead whales sing 24 hours a day in the winter to woo mates, underwater noise levels have doubled in just seven years. As sea ice disappears, so does this physical barrier that once dampened sounds from above the surface.

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