On the occasion of the International Noise Awareness Day on April 29th, OceanCare hands over more than 10,000 signatures to representatives of the Maldivian government in protest against their offshore oil exploration plans. Mandated by the government, the Maldives National Oil Company (MNOC) intends to step up the search for oil around the coral reefs of the Maldives. Deafening airguns are to be used for such further seismic explorations. Marine conservation NGO OceanCare is criticising these highly questionable plans and warns against extensive and irreversible damages caused by underwater noise pollution to the marine ecosystem. Given the current political situation in the Maldives, this critique is ever more pressing.

“The Maldivian government remains firm on its oil exploration plans. By handing over more than 10,000 signatures of protest today, we clearly demonstrate the growing public pressure. We call on the government to rethink their plans”, says Sigrid Lüber, president of OceanCare ahead of today’s visit at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Maldives to the UN in Geneva. The internationally active marine conservation NGO, which holds the Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN since 2011, asked the Maldivian representation in Geneva already three times for a meeting, without a response. OceanCare was therefore taking advantage of the International Noise Awareness Day and tried at 10AM to personally speak to representatives of the Maldivian Mission to the UN during their official opening hours. Yet again, a meeting was refused, whereupon OceanCare handed the protest signatures to the Secretariat, which promised to pass the signatures on to the person in charge.

“In light of the current political situation in the Maldives, it is particularly important to keep up international pressure. We have to call on president Yameen’s government to listen to reason and to stop the airguns before it is too late”, says Lüber. “The hands of the local environmental NGOs seem to be tied behind their backs”, interprets the OceanCare president. On enquiry by OceanCare about news on the issue, local NGOs state: “we have no further news on the government’s oil exploration plans. The country has come to a halt over the imprisonment of former president Nasheed.”

Noise attack on holidaymaker’s paradise
The international protests were triggered by the intentions of President Abdulla Yameen to develop fossil fuels in the archipelago which is a fragile ecosystem of inestimable ecological value. The German research vessel “Sonne” conducted preliminary 3D seismic surveys in Maldivian waters already back in August 2014, discovering hydrocarbon source rock 100 nautical miles east of the region around the Laamu and the Thaa Atolls. Further seismic exploration and test drillings are to follow.

About one week ago, a local journalist inquired as to what the President thought of the international protests. Yameen’s spokesperson replied that the President welcomes all constructive criticism, but that the oil exploration will go ahead as planned, as it has been an election campaign pledge by the ruling party.

Lüber wants to alert the representatives of the Maldivian government to the threats caused by underwater noise pollution, which have not yet been properly addressed by the government. Further, she wishes to re-emphasise that the development of oil resources in sensitive areas, like the Atolls, is much too risky, threatening not only the environment, but also vital economic sectors – especially tourism and fisheries – and thus the livelihood of the Maldivian population.

Rush for oil in protected areas and tourism hotspots
Despite the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and numerous other incidents that demonstrated a certain cluelessness of the oil industry in cases of emergency, the quest for the ‘black gold’ is heading towards deeper and deeper waters, protected areas and tourism hotspots, including the Adriatic Sea, the Balearic Islands, and the Maldives, where livelihoods almost exclusively depend on tourism.

Public protests and the Silent Oceans campaign make a difference
Two recent decisions in Spain let the marine conservationists hope for positive change. Public protests and clear opposition against oil developments in the waters off the Canary Islands prompted Spanish petroleum company Repsol to finally withdraw from the region. Also, in autumn 2014, the Spanish Ministry of the Environment rejected the request by a petroleum company to search for oil south of Malaga, acknowledging that this is an essential habitat, amongst others, of endangered beaked whales.

In the case of the Balearic Islands, public pressure was effective, too. Thanks to the intensive protest by the local population, OceanCare, the ‘Silent Oceans’ coalition and Alianza Mar Blava, the Spanish government so far did not approve permission for oil exploration in the region.

“Oil exploration has become a test case for the credibility of international species conservation agreements and civil society participation”, says Lüber. “Hopefully, such protests from civil society will increase and also be respected in a country like the Maldives where the former president and internationally respected environmental and human rights advocate Mohamed Nasheed, with reference to anti-terror-laws, was sentenced to 13 years in prison, while being denied any legal counsel to this day”, concludes the president of OceanCare.

29. April: International Noise Awareness Day
This year’s International Noise Awareness Day is devoted to respect and tolerance. Night owls shall respect the residents’ right for silence and the residents shall show more tolerance towards the party-makers. However, other than human beings, marine animals cannot avoid anthropogenic noise. One week after the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the International Noise Awareness Day is another occasion to pay attention to the effects underwater noise has on marine life and to respect their habitats.

Underwater noise pollution caused by oil exploration activities: deadly threat to marine animals
Intensive explosive sounds, like oil explorations exposing the seafloor to noise of up to 260 dB every 10 to 15 seconds for weeks or months, or the use of low or medium frequency sonar to detect submarines, are among the most dangerous sources of noise in the world’s oceans. Science has long established a correlation between noise and atypical mass strandings of marine mammals, changes in behaviour and migration patterns of marine mammals, as well as alarming effects on commercial fish stocks, crustaceans and other marine wildlife.