I’m on the train heading back to our field study site off the west coast of Scotland. It’s a beautiful journey from Edinburgh to Auchnasheen – the end of the line on the way to Gairloch. I left Nicola and Kila to survey and snuck away a couple of days ago to present at the Institute of Acoustics Conference in Southampton. The conference was focused on underwater noise measurement, impact and mitigation and it was very interesting (details of the conference can be found here: https://underwaternoise2008.lboro.ac.uk/index.php).
My presentation was on “navy guidance to protect marine mammals from active sonar” (which I gave at the same time as Nicola spotted a sei whale!!), based on a paper that will soon be published. Very timely!! In addition to presenting this piece of work, attending the conference gave me the opportunity to talk to a number of acoustic and other experts about noise issues more generally. The most promising issue that I took from the meeting was the commitment to make progress on the issue of noise though a UK Noise Forum that includes all stakeholders. This group formed over a year ago and is the first concerted effort to better understand possible impacts of noise pollution on marine life in UK waters.
Navy sonar and potential impacts on whales and dolphins have had considerable exposure in the media of late. The US supreme court case brought about by the US conservation group, NRDC (www.nrdc.org) about protection of marine species during the operation of US mid-frequency active sonar. Closer to home in the UK, the common dolphin stranding in Cornwall back in June looking increasingly like it was connected to navy activities with the release of information from the MoD following a request from WDCS and other charities. The link is by no means certain but there is no doubt that a number of countries were involved in a major exercise that took place in the days that led up to the stranding - and the Royal Navy was still using active sonar during the afternoon after the stranding had occurred (we think it happened in the early hours of the morning). This could of course have been a problem for animals that were still alive and attempted to be refloated and brings into question why the Navy was still operating sonar after such a major incident that received national media attention.
More generally, as my presentation recognised, the UK Navy and some other navies around the world are taking the issue of noise pollution seriously and considerable resources and effort are being applied to finding solutions to mitigate their impacts. But we don’t believe that the current measures go far enough. ‘Atypical’ strandings continue to happen around the world and an increasing number of species are involved in these strandings (although this common dolphin stranding was unprecedented, our leading UK pathologist did identify gas bubbles in a common dolphin back in 2003 and made a possible connection with navy activities then). Put simply, navies need to conduct full, detailed and public Environment Assessments. Navies also need to identify important habitats and vulnerable species and conduct exercises around these, outside of important breeding, feeding and migration habitats. On-board mitigations need to be strengthened but the limitations also need to be acknowledged. On-board mitigation alone can not protect marine wildlife. Importantly, the Royal Navy, as with other marine users, should be funding basic research to improve our understanding of the marine environment and the populations and trends of populations as well as potential impacts. Without this information, we can not truly know the potential impacts of repeated and ongoing sonar on marine life.