ESA Position » Letters from the President:

October 16, 2009

Ms. Nancy Sutley
Chair of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force
White House Council on Environmental Quality
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Ms. Sutley,

The Ecological Society of America applauds your September 10 Interim Report for its recognition of both the importance of ocean ecosystems and the stresses placed on them by human activity. The nine priority objectives identified in your report reflect a commitment to and appreciation for ecosystem health, and we enthusiastically support your goal of creating a new National Oceans Policy that will “protect the health and resilience of oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes.” To fully realize this goal, we urge you to include anthropogenic underwater noise among the threats to ocean ecosystems addressed in the new policy.

Hearing is critical to marine animals like whales, dolphins, and fish, which depend on sound to communicate, detect predators, and locate food and mates. Human activity is rapidly increasing the level of noise in the sea. It is altering natural acoustic environments, distorting the perceptual world of marine animals and impairing their ability to “see” with sound. Major sources, including commercial ship propellers and seismic pulses used for oil and gas exploration, propagate noise over enormous distances, affecting millions of square miles of ocean—few places in the world’s oceans remain free of noise from human activity.  Chronic noise exposure, although often difficult to detect by humans, can reduce survival rates in marine animals; exposure to loud noise can injure and sometimes kill them. In both cases, anthropogenic underwater noise threatens biodiversity and an array of endangered and threatened species.

Unlike many other ecosystem stressors, noise does not remain in the environment after its source is removed. Reducing ocean noise is therefore an achievable goal that will help marine life withstand more persistent challenges, such as those presented by chemical pollution and climate change. We can limit the effects of industrial and commercial noise sources while retaining their public benefits by using tools such as marine spatial planning—which you call for in your interim report—and silencing technologies that are currently, or soon to be, commercially available.

Any strategy to protect ocean ecosystems should account for the tremendous role of sound in underwater environments. As the nation’s premier society of professional ecologists, the Ecological Society of America encourages you to account for anthropogenic ocean noise as you guide our nation toward a more sustainable and enlightened approach to ocean management.


Mary Power, ESA President
Mary E. Power