71% of the Earth surface is covered by oceans and two-thirds of that area makes up by the High Seas. While some activities of humankind in these regions are regulated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) such as international shipping, sea-bed mining and e.g. whaling, there is – until today – no overarching treaty to protect biodiversity and ecosystems in these regions. A situation that might change soon. Better today, “it must change”.

Between the 4th and 17th of September 2018 negotiations start within an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) by the United Nations in New York following a lengthy preparatory period to agree on such a Treaty. Civil Society has teamed up since years working hand in hand to promote the creation of such a Treaty, forming positions and clear proposals how the oceans and marine wildlife will truly benefit from this process.

OceanCare has been involved in this process and will be represented at the Meeting by Lora L. Nordtvedt Reeve, MS, MBA, JD, Ocean Law & Policy Expert and Johannes Müller, Ocean Policy Consultant. OceanCare is a Member of the High Seas Alliance, a coalition of 37 NGOs, speaking with one strong voice.

OceanCare strongly supports the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction. During the IGC, OceanCare will continue to emphasize the role of the new legally binding instrument as a critical framework to prevent, reduce and control the anthropogenic underwater noise and other transboundary pollutants that cause significant adverse effects to the species and ecosystems of the high seas and deep seabed.

Sigrid Lüber, president of OceanCare, provides some thoughts on why such move is so important:

 

The oceans are a space filled with sound from natural sources, but also increasingly by human made noise. In some regions anthropogenic underwater noise has doubled every decade in the past 60 years. There is probably no region anymore where the oceans is not filled with noise. This is especially critical in the last refugees like the Arctic which is more and more in the focus of the industry and due to climate change will face more ship traffic which will change the ambient sound considerably and will impact marine life and local communities.

Marine life relies on sound for their vital life functions, including communication, prey and predator detection, orientation, and for sensing surroundings. While the ocean is already a sound filled environment and many biological sounds are very loud, marine species are not adapted to anthropogenic noise and can be physically injured or killed and severely impact basic life functioning including feeding and breeding behaviours and ability to avoid predation if exposed to elevated or prolonged anthropogenic noise.

Studies have shown that commercial fish catch rates can drop substantially, with larger fish leaving an area coincident with underwater noise events and increased by-catch rates and decreased fish abundance have also been observed in the presence of noise. Other industries such as tourism may also be impacted by anthropogenic noise when it impacts the location and movements of cetacean species that are valuable for the multi-billion dollar whale watching industry. If levels of anthropogenic underwater noise continue to rise at their current rate, the socio-economic impacts are likely to become more significant.

Anthropogenic ocean noise is a threat to the protection of the marine environment and the wildlife and humans who depend on it. Undermining efforts to achieve healthy, sustainable oceans and restore fish stocks, anthropogenic ocean noise has crucial relevance to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and should be considered and addressed through the Sustainable Development Goal framework as a harmful form of marine pollution that impacts the conservation of oceans with implications for human livelihoods and food security.

There is a growing international consensus on regulating ocean noise and a number of Multilateral Environment Agreements, have passed resolutions and for example the Convention on Migratory Species agreed upon guidelines on Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), which can be used to determine whether noise generating activities are likely to cause negative impacts, taking into account the distances over which underwater noise can cause damage. In this context the impacts of anthropogenic underwater noise should be considered when implementing fish stock restoration measures such as ‘no fish’ zones which may not be sufficient to protect these stocks if their mortality, overall health and behaviour is being impacted by noise generating activities.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can be effective means of protecting marine life from ocean noise impacts, but so called buffer zones need to be considered, because noise doesn’t stop at the border of an MPA.

The application of generally accepted conservation principles and approaches in planning and decision making are as important as including requirements for the use of the best available scientific evidence, global best practice standards, ecosystem-based management, transparency, meaningful oversight and consultation, and the precautionary principle.

Ocean Noise travels over huge distances. In fact it is a transboundary pollution which undermines efforts to protect marine life from other threats. Because of its transboundary nature, ocean noise pollution needs to be managed globally. The momentum to regulate ocean noise pollution is raising with the UN open-ended Informal Consultative Process of the Convention on the Law of the Sea held in June 2018 in New York which was dedicated to anthropogenic underwater noise. With the first Intergovernmental Conference for the legally binding agreement for the high seas under UNCLOs ahead of us, we have to be optimistic that Nations live up to their responsibility safeguarding the future of our oceans, our planet. There are simply no alternatives. It’s about time, the high seas receive a properly functioning instrument providing strict protection.

 

Sigrid Lüber, President of OceanCare