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IMO moves to curb marine-life-threatening shipping noise

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has announced that it will be revising guidelines from 2014 that apply to commercial ships, with the aim of reducing the level of underwater noise which, it said threatened the survival of some marine species.

The draft revisions still need to be approved by the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 80) in July this year

Several organizations had been arguing for changes in the guidelines, now nearly 10 years old. These include a group representing Inuit communities in Canada, the US, Greenland and the Russian autonomous oblast of Chukotka.

Lisa Koperqualuk, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, said that, while the group had failed to get an Arctic-specific annex included in the revised guidelines, the Indigenous inclusions were “a wonderful step up from the previous guidelines”.

The revised guidelines detail best practices for commercial ships to reduce noise, including optimizing propeller and hull design, reducing speed, adjusting routes to minimize travel through sensitive areas and proper maintenance.

“Additional efforts to decrease impacts to marine wildlife are advisable for ships that operate in these areas, including particular attention to reducing the noise impact from icebreaking and implementation of operational approaches and monitoring,” the IMO said in the revised guidelines.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council argued in its submission that waters in the Inuit Nunaat were naturally quieter than those in other parts of the world, which meant that sounds might travel farther for reasons that included temperature, shallowness of the seabed and changing salinity gradients.

Icebreakers and ships capable of traversing the often ice-covered region were likely to be noisier. Noise pollution from ships more than doubled in some parts of the Arctic between 2013 and 2019, according to a report from Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME).

“Underwater noise in some parts of the Arctic is already at levels that are likely interfering with the abilities of whales, seals, and walrus to communicate and use sound, and could be affecting other marine life,” the report noted. “As sea ice continues to diminish, shipping and underwater noise will grow.”

The risk that increased shipping of iron ore would disrupt narwhal behaviour was a major concern of Inuit in Canada.

The Clean Arctic Alliance on Friday January 27th welcomed the progress made, but warned that further delay in the development of an action programme – including compulsory measures – would prevent significant action to decrease vessel noise in the oceans.

The revision of the 2014 underwater noise guidelines was finalized last week during SDC 9, the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Construction in London. However, the CAA noted that the IMO failed to discuss next steps, which CAA said should have included a path forward to the development of compulsory measures to reduce underwater noise.

CAA is arguing for mandatory rules, noting that a survey of the commercial shipping industry found that very few ships utilized the 2014 guidelines.

During SDC 8 in January 2022, a working group confirmed these findings when it agreed that voluntary guidance, as opposed to regulations, was a key barrier limiting uptake of the guidelines, the CAA said.

“The onus must now be on member states and the shipping industry to apply the IMO’s guidelines that have until now been ignored”, said Sarah Bobbe, Arctic Program Manager, at Ocean Conservancy, adding that “the IMO’s future work on underwater noise must include compulsory measures such as the adoption of limits on underwater radiated noise from ships, so that the overall failure to reduce underwater noise is addressed globally,” added Bobbe. “In addition to global measures, even more stringent regional measures to reduce acoustic pollution from vessels in areas such as the Arctic will be necessary”.

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