Efforts to dial back dangerous underwater ocean noise won a victory earlier this month as a federal court agreed with environmentalists that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) had illegally approved the U.S. Navy’s use of high-intensity, low-frequency sonar, the pulses from which are believed to harm mating, feeding, and social and migration patterns of whales and other marine mammals.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court’s three-judge panel on July 15 concluded that NMFS “did not give adequate protection to areas of the world’s oceans flagged by its own experts as biologically important. The result is that a meaningful proportion of the world’s marine mammal habitat is under-protected.” Among other areas, experts had recommended special protection for the Galapagos Islands, Hawai‘i’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and Bermuda’s Challenger Bank.
“The [court] understood that the navy can do more to reduce the risk of its powerful long-range sonar,” according to Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which filed the lawsuit in 2012. “Ignorance is no excuse for inaction where common-sense safeguards recommended by the government’s own scientists can prevent avoidable harm.”
The ruling came the day after the NRDC, joined by Jean-Michel Cousteau of Ocean Futures Society, screened its 2015 documentary Sonic Sea to a packed Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. The award-winning 60-minute film details the sources and impacts of manmade subsurface noise, beyond warship sonar. For more, The Santa Barbara Independent caught up with Daniel Hinerfeld, a content director at the NRDC and the film’s codirector.
Where did the idea for this documentary come from? The NRDC has been working to combat ocean noise pollution for over 20 years. Jasny saw a film I made for NRDC in 2009 called Acid Test, about ocean acidification. He thought a film about ocean noise could raise broad awareness about the issue and help propel change. Despite being a place of wonder, the ocean is out of sight and out of mind, so documentary film is a great way to get people interested in and emotionally involved with the ocean.
At what point did you decide the subject deserved a full-blown documentary? We realized several years ago that there was a fascinating science story to tell about the way whales and other animals use and depend on sound and how we’re destroying life with all the noise we make, but also a compelling human story about the dedicated scientists and advocates who are struggling to understand and protect the ocean’s delicate acoustic habitat. Light only travels a short distance in ocean water, but sound travels five times faster in the ocean than in our atmosphere, and low-frequency sounds travel virtually unimpeded, so it’s possible to hear sounds in the ocean thousands of kilometers away. The ocean, it turns out, is a world of sound. Scientists know that some whales actually communicate across entire ocean basins.
Why tackle this topic rather than polluted runoff, plastic pollution, etc.? Ocean noise pollution is a serious global problem, but it’s a problem that is relatively straightforward to solve. With better policies and technologies that already exist, we can reduce the racket we’re making in the ocean quite substantially. And the minute we stop making noise, ocean noise pollution goes away. Meanwhile, the ocean faces numerous other challenges, from acidification and warming to toxic pollution and overfishing, that are much more complicated. Reversing acidification and warming, for instance, will likely take many decades and require remaking our industrial society. So it’s important to pick that low-hanging fruit. Reducing ocean noise will make the ocean better able to withstand these other insults that will take longer to deal with. Ocean noise is likely driving some species of whales toward extinction and making it much harder for many other species to prosper. We still know very little about it, and its ramifications are probably worse than we know. But there’s no question that acidification, warming, and overfishing are the biggest threats to life in the ocean.
How do we reduce the racket? Better designs can reduce noise from shipping by 90 percent. That’s huge. And thanks to NRDC’s advocacy in the courts, the U.S. Navy is finally beginning to address the harm its sonar and explosives training and testing do to whales and other marine life. The oil and gas industry is a tough nut to crack, but there are new technologies for finding fossil fuels beneath the ocean floor that are much quieter than the air-gun surveys the industry currently uses.
There will be a free screening of Sonic Sea at UCSB’s Pollock Theater Thursday, July 28, at 7 p.m. Go to carseywolf.ucsb.edu to make reservations, which are recommended.