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New studies reveal impact of navy sonar on whales

Two new published studies in the scientific journals Proceedings B and Biology Letters, reveal how simulated navy sonar can disturb the behaviour of blue whales and beaked whales.

Despite often being considered an ‘emerging threat’ to whales and dolphins, noise pollution has been on the agenda since the 1980s – more than 30 years now. And despite the ever increasing evidence of impacts to whales and dolphins, there has been very little movement towards effective protection.

This latest evidence of military sonar impacts – firstly in those deep diving beaked whale species that we already knew were highly susceptible to stranding as a result of sonar activities, and now evidence suggests that sonar ‘significantly affects the feeding behaviour’ of the most endangered baleen species, the mighty blue whale.

And alongside these important new publications on military sonar impacts, a monumental court decision in the US this month also determined that mitigation for seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico are woefully inadequate.

Current ‘best practise’ guidelines deal only with injury at short distances from the source and often only at the start of activities (it is ‘assumed that animals will move away to protect themselves). They are woefully inadequate. These guidelines do nothing to mitigate the wide spread behavioural affects that whales and dolphins, and other marine life, are suffering with, on a daily basis, in the seas around us – affecting their feeding, their fitness, increasing stranding risk and the health of whole populations.

Noise producers and governments of the world have a responsibility to protect our marine life and conserve populations. Noise guidelines do not protect individuals from injury and they do not protect populations from wide scale behavioural impacts that may have population consequences.

In the UK we understand the JNCC (the public body that advises the UK Government on nature conservation) seismic guidelines will be reviewed this year. The JNCC guidelines were one of the first to be produced globally and are often looked upon as being world leading. We wonder how all this evidence of impact, compiled since the last review of the guidelines, will be used to inform their updating.

A step change to ensure effective mitigation of intense noise pollution is long overdue.

Find out more about pollution and read our report – Oceans of Noise.