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Noise pollution from Arctic shipping more than doubled in six years putting whales and other marine life at risk

26 May 2021

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Ottawa, Canada – A new report shows that the amount of underwater noise in parts of the Arctic Ocean has doubled in just six years because of increased shipping traffic. The report was released by the Arctic Council and is the first time scientists have mapped noise pollution from shipping across the region. The results are staggering considering it took oceans in other parts of the world between 30 and 40 years to reach that magnitude of increase.

Underwater noise pollution is known to harm marine life from shellfish to globally important fish stocks to large whales. The Arctic’s many coastal and Indigenous Peoples depend upon the ocean for their livelihoods and culture. The Arctic Council study shows that between 2013 and 2019, ship noise doubled in multiple locations, though in some areas like the Barents Sea and Baffin Bay, noise levels were up to ten times higher.

Dr Melanie Lancaster, species lead WWF Arctic Programme said:

“Marine mammals rely on sound to find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young. This report clearly shows that one of the planet’s last natural ‘sound sanctuaries’ for marine life is being inundated with human-caused underwater noise. There is an urgent need to turn down the volume of ship noise in the Arctic because these dramatic increases cannot be left unchecked.”

The Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet. Our rapidly changing climate has led to a decrease in sea ice and an increase in shipping throughout the region. During the corresponding time frame of the report, the number of ships operating in Arctic waters grew by 25 per cent and the distance they sailed increased 75 per cent.

The Arctic Ocean’s cold temperatures and other oceanographic conditions make it a special case for underwater noise. Sound travels long distances at shallow water depths. This means that ship noise is concentrated within the swimming and diving ranges of whales, walrus and other seals. Even small amounts of shipping can have a disproportionately large impact on the acoustic environment of wildlife compared to other oceans around the world.

Wendy Elliott, Deputy Leader of WWF’s Wildlife Practice said:

“Underwater noise is a global problem in our oceans. Based on scientific knowledge from other parts of the world, the amount of noise in the Arctic is likely already having a detrimental effect on noise-sensitive species and marine ecosystems. Ship noise can disrupt the activities marine animals need to survive by shrinking their communication space, causing stress and displacing them from important habitats. More needs to be done to understand and reduce underwater noise impacts on marine life.”

Immediate solutions that can help protect marine life and reduce underwater noise levels include:

  • Shipping operators voluntarily slowing down and routing away from key habitats, Indigenous use areas and protected areas. In some cases, slowing down by 10 per cent can have as much as a 40 per cent reduction in underwater noise pollution;
  • Development and implementation of quieter ships through technical and design measures, such as hull cleaning and efficient propellers.
  • Regulation at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to require quiet vessel designs, slower ship speeds and changes to shipping routes to avoid biologically sensitive areas.

Read the full report by visiting the Arctic Council’s PAME website.

For more information

Leanne Clare | Sr. Manager Communications, Arctic Programme | lclare@wwfcanada.org