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Seas and Oceans: Noise

Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (1) what assessment he has made of the effects of shipping noise on (a) whales, (b) dolphins, (c) porpoises and (d) other aquatic animals; (241473)

(2) if he will bring forward proposals to designate ocean noise a pollutant for the purposes of the forthcoming Marine Bill.

The UK Government are concerned about the potential impact of undersea noise on cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and the wider marine environment, and have taken action on a number of issues in this respect.

In October 2004, DEFRA commissioned research assessing the feasibility of examining the ears of stranded dead cetaceans to determine whether they show any signs of damage due to marine noise. A report on the findings of this research was published in November 2006 and showed that of the three sets of cetacean ears examined in detail, none had evidence of acoustic trauma. It went on to outline the technical problems associated with examining cetacean ears for the effects of marine noise. A copy of the report is available on the Science pages of the DEFRA website at

In November 2005, the UK supported the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Resolution 8.22 on adverse human induced impacts on cetaceans, which included requesting the CMS Secretariat and Scientific Council to review the extent to which CMS and CMS cetacean-related agreements are addressing various human induced impacts, including marine noise.

DEFRA was also part of an Inter-Agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology (IACMST) working group on ‘Underwater Sound and Marine Life’. This working group prepared a report detailing what steps were needed in light of present information, in order to achieve a regulatory framework for the control of sound in the marine environment. This report can be found on the IACMST website at

More recently, the Government have provided funding towards work on cetacean distribution and abundance in European Atlantic offshore waters. The information collected as part of this project is intended to assist in making an assessment of the different threats to cetaceans, including seismic activity. We anticipate the final report to be available by early 2009, and we hope that it will help to inform what mitigation measures may be required for the protection of cetaceans.

In order to improve our understanding of the scale and impacts of human derived noise occurring in the marine environment, the Department also intends to complete a call for research proposals in early 2009. This call will be to identify and take forward research on assessing the current status of marine noise occurring in the marine environment, including shipping, and assessing what the impacts are on marine life.

DEFRA, in line with its commitments under both ASCOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas) and the Habitats Directive (Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, Council Directive 92/43/EEC), also supports a long running contract with the Natural History Museum examining causes of mortality in stranded cetaceans and marine turtles around the UK. This research helps to inform what factors, e.g. disease, malnutrition, may be affecting the populations of cetaceans in UK waters.

In addition, The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) is funding two projects by consultants, Subacoustech Limited—estimating, measuring and controlling the environmental effects of man-made noise on the marine environment, and a feasibility and demonstration study on the active and passive detection of marine mammals.

Using powers contained in the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, the Government plan to designate Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) which will form part of an ecological coherent network of marine protected areas around the UK. MCZs will be designated to protect habitats and species of national importance and will be protected through new duties being placed on public authorities. Where the achievement of the conservation objectives for an MCZ requires marine noise to be controlled, the competent authority will have duties to that effect.

The impacts of marine noise on the wider environment will also be taken into account through decisions made using the new marine planning system and licensing process as proposed in the Bill, and as required under section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. The Government consider that the proposals contained in the Bill, together with existing legislation, will provide the necessary powers to control marine noise where it poses a risk to valuable marine wildlife.

I am pleased to confirm that the Government introduced the Marine and Coastal Access Bill into the House of Lords on 4 December 2008.