Cutting Through The Noise: EIA’s Take on International Progress to Reduce Underwater Noise in Commercial Shipping

Recently, EIA attended the Ship Design and Construction Sub-Committee (SDC 9) meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London. The IMO is where countries meet to agree on regulatory frameworks to, among other things, minimize the environmental impacts of shipping. EIA has been participating in IMO meetings for nearly eight years. We worked together with partners to secure a ban on heavy fuel oil use in Arctic waters and our UK office is pursuing new IMO policy for reducing “ghost fishing gear,” a major source of marine plastic pollution. At SDC 9, our work was focused on progressing policies to reduce underwater radiated noise (URN) from commercial shipping.

URN from commercial ships can negatively impact critical life functions of marine mammals. Since sound is the lifeline for marine mammals (i.e. to locate prey, find mates, and to navigate), reducing harmful URN from ships is essential for their survival. And as the global shipping sector continues to grow and move into new areas such as the Arctic, URN is only going to increase, thus further impacting already vulnerable populations.

The last time IMO examined the issue of underwater noise was in the mid 2010s. This effort resulted in the adoption of the 2014 Guidelines for the Reduction of Underwater Noise from Commercial Shipping to Address Adverse Impacts on Marine Life. Unfortunately, there has been essentially zero implementation of these guidelines because they are entirely voluntary. That is why in 2021 IMO member states agreed to “commence further work on underwater noise from ships” and then last year to review and fully revise the 2014 guidelines and identify next steps to reduce underwater noise from ships.

Going into the meeting we knew that member state delegates, the various commercial shipping and supplier industry trade groups, and NGOs would have to work hard to complete the task of finalizing the guidelines and identifying next steps. After a long, often intense, four days of detailed line-by-line review, the Working Group successfully produced a fully finalized set of revised guidelines, which will be submitted to SDC’s parent committee (MEPC – Marine Environment Protection Committee) for formal adoption later this summer. Unfortunately, the working group was unable to discuss next steps.

Overall, revision of the guidelines represents a positive step for all parties involved. The guidelines remain voluntary but were significantly improved. For example, they now include guidance on the creation of noise management plans for ships as well as a framework for the development of noise thresholds. The onus is now on industry to implement the revised guidelines. Slow-steaming through areas of sensitive marine life and the establishment of noise thresholds within the design and construction phase of new ships are specific areas of focus where industry can become key partners in advancing environmentally-friendly shipping practices.

Despite this progress, the critically important discussion of next steps and development of a program of action to reduce underwater noise will have to be addressed a year from now at SDC 10.  It is essential that mandatory noise reduction policies are considered as a next step. While much work remains to be done, EIA is optimistic that a path has been effectively laid for a future where the global shipping sector can adapt to a more energy efficient and quieter operational approach that has the positive co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time protecting vulnerable marine mammals from harmful underwater noise.