Summary

Increasing human activity, along more of the earth’s coastlines and extending farther offshore in deep ocean environments, is leading to rising levels of underwater noise throughout the world’s aquatic places. Rising noise levels are impacting the animals and ecosystems that inhabit these places in complex ways, including through acute, chronic, and cumulative effects. In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the federal agency that holds the most responsibility for protecting aquatic animals and their habitats, through a variety of legal mandates. NOAA’s approach towards further understanding and managing underwater noise must be multi-faceted. Numerous studies illustrate specific adverse physical and behavioral effects that exposure to certain sound types and levels can have on different species. Additionally, sound is a fundamental component of the physical and biological habitat that many aquatic animals and ecosystems have evolved to rely on over millions of years. In just the last ~100 years human activities have caused large increases in noise and changes in soundscapes (i.e. the sounds heard in a particular location, considered as a whole). These changes can lead to reduced ability to detect and interpret environmental cues that animals use to select mates, find food, maintain group structure and relationships, avoid predators, navigate, and perform other critical life functions. Therefore, NOAA’s management goals and actions must aim to conserve the quality of acoustic habitat in addition to minimize more direct adverse physical and behavioral impacts to specific species. To support these objectives, NOAA is investing risk assessment tools that integrate information regarding the impacts of noise on high priority acoustically sensitive and active marine animals and their habitats to support agency science and management decision making.

Introduction

As the steward of our nation’s oceans, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conserves and manages important coastal and marine ecosystems and resources, including a variety of species and habitats of ecological, economic, and cultural significance. NOAA is responsible for protecting the long-term health of some of the ocean’s most charismatic animals and the habitats that support them. And, while these living marine resources (including whales, dolphins, turtles, fishes, and invertebrates) fill very different roles in marine ecosystems, they share a common and fundamental biological need: the ability to hear, produce, and respond to sound. Because many of these animals rely on sound to communicate, eat, and reproduce, NOAA must protect the acoustic quality of their habitat.

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