The United Nations Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea concluded its 19th meeting (ICP19) on the 22nd of June 2018 in New York, USA. This year’s meeting focused on the issue of anthropogenic underwater noise. The report summing up the conclusions of the expert body is now being transmitted to the UN Secretary General and the UN General Assembly. The United Nations will discuss in autumn on how to deal with these conclusions. We reflect on what happened so far and try to give an outlook.
The issue is now established also at the highest level of international politics. Underwater noise is a threat to the preservation of marine biodiversity and the marine ecosystem as a whole. Expert views only differ in terms of the scale of potential negative impacts caused by underwater noise. This was reflected within ICP discussions by treating potential socioeconomic impacts of this form of marine pollution as one of the main issues.
One central basis for discussions at the ICP has been the report by Dr. Lindy Weilgart, Dalhousie University, commissioned by OceanCare, in which the renowned marine biologist analysed available scientific information on the impacts of noise on fish and marine invertebrates. Reading this document feels like reading science’s call for help to better regulate human activities at sea. In short: Anthropogenic noise in the oceans has to be reduced – international politics have to live up to their duties.
One consequence is to carefully assess noise-generating activities prior to issuing a permit for such projects (e.g. use of airguns in the search for hydrocarbons). The best tool for doing this is the environmental impact assessment (EIA). As we reported earlier, the signatories to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), which is part of the UN Environmental Programme, adopted guidelines for EIAs prior to noise-generating activities in autumn 2017. As part of our fruitful cooperation with the CMS secretariat and at the official invitation by Monaco’s representation at the UN, we gave a presentation about this instrument at the ICP meeting. The guidelines constitute an important, solution-oriented contribution to the discussions about the options to turn down the volume below the ocean surface.
The OceanCare team can be satisfied about the meeting’s concluding report, as it includes many of the crucial aspects that OceanCare called for, including:
- Underwater noise acknowledged as a form of marine pollution.
- Socio-economic impacts of activities emitting noise into the ocean to be investigated in a global context.
- Call on the international community to implement the guidelines developed by two conventions within the UN framework – the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – on environmental impact assessments prior to noise-generating activities and on reducing underwater noise from commercial shipping.
- Call on countries to adopt regulations which create incentives for the development of noise reducing technologies.
- Measures like EIAs and the designation of marine protected areas have to be worked into the treaty on the conservation of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), which will be negotiated in September.
While there would be a lot more things to report from the meeting, let’s take some time to try an outlook. Already a few days after the ICP19, on Tuesday, 26th of June, OceanCare had the opportunity to present some of the ICP’s conclusions at an event in the European Parliament, and to call for more efficient measures in European waters. In the same week, we presented information to representatives of fisheries and Mediterranean riparian states at an expert meeting in Morocco, which dealt with the conservation of commercial fish stocks. On Monday, an OceanCare team goes to Rome for the meeting of the Fisheries Committee of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
This list could be continued, but the main point is: OceanCare follows the principle to establish concrete conservation measures at the international level and to ensure measurable implementation. The ICP was more than just another step – it was a milestone for seriously addressing the threats posed by underwater noise. There are still many challenges ahead, but these don’t put us off, but motivate us to continue to strive for healthy oceans.