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Turning down the volume underwater

Ferries, freighters and whale-watching boats are part of the tableau that makes the Pacific Northwest postcard pretty and tourist friendly. But all that marine activity creates cacophony underwater.

This month in Victoria and Seattle, separate groups of scientists are sharing their observations that the ocean is getting noisier. And now, conservationists and shippers are also talking about how to dial down the volume.

Michael Jasny is a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He argues what he calls “the fog of noise” is undermining the ability of whales to communicate.

The science in this arena is pretty new. Bright lines between noisy and quiet, safe and harmful have yet to be established.  But Jasny contends the risks can only rise as international trade and offshore drilling increase:

”As the research has been done, it’s been very clear that what we have on our hands is really a major problem. It’s a serious problem. It’s global problem. Fortunately, in shipping we have a problem that has a solution.”


Shushing the ships

And that solution is quieter ship designs.  In Victoria, several whale watch companies brag their boats produce less underwater racket.  A bigger example is the newest vessel to join the federal fisheries research fleet. The Seattle-based Bell M. Shimada is 208-feet long.  Noise Control Engineering, Inc. VP Michael Bahtiarian consulted on its design:

“These NOAA ships show that you can get fairly quiet – I think quiet enough -- because they are able at 11 knots to go up and count a fish and not startle the fish so they can actually count it. ”

Bahtiarian points to propellers as the primary source of noise pollution.The fix is to match a more efficient propeller with an optimized hull shape. The new federal research ships also have more expensive engines that reduce vibration:

“I think people are saying a lot of, ‘Oh boy, here comes something else we have to deal with. ’”


Shipping industry is onboard

That’s what I expected to get when I called representatives of the marine trade.  But instead, Kathy Metcalf and others told me the shipping industry recognizes there’s a potential problem and wants to be part of the solution. Metcalf directs maritime affairs at the Chamber of Shipping of America:

“Our approach is that if we’re progressive now and begin the changeover in the design of ships before we are forced to do it, it will be much less costly to the industry. ”

And there’s one more big selling point:

“If people see the fuel savings that we expect to be obtained from this more refined ship design, we don’t think you’re going to have to sell the concept to anybody.”

Metcalf says the best venue for working out any new rules for shipping is a United Nations agency called the International Maritime Organization. She estimates that’ll likely take five years.

Web extras:

Listen to hydrophone recordings in the Strait of Georgia from VENUS/University of Victoria.

Marine Mammal Commissionunderwater noise primer.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.