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NOAA Proposes Doubling of Orca Whalewatching Distance

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NOAA has proposed a doubling of the limit governing how close whalewatching boats may approach endangered orcas in the waters of Puget sound.  Current voluntary guidelines ask boats to remain at least 100 yards from the endangered killer whales, while the proposed new mandatory limit would be 200 yards in most areas, with a half-mile wide “no go” zone in one area heavily used by orcas.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that orcas depend on their sonar to navigate and find food – chiefly salmon. Underwater noise from vessel that are too close interferes with that sonar.  “Vessel noise is going to decrease their ability to seek prey,” said Joe Gaydos, regional director of the SeaDoc Society in the San Juan Islands. “This is the right thing to do at the right time. … I think (the proposed rules) are tenable. I think people will support them. I think they are good for the whales,” Gaydos said.  The Bellingham Times spoke toThe owner of one of the longest-operating whale watching outfits responded to the proposal with relative acceptance. “They’re not horrible, they’re not great,” said Drew Schmidt, owner of Victoria San Juan Cruises, “They’re not going to put us out of business.” While Schmidt said he believes whale watch operators are being unfairly singled out, noting that toxins and limited salmon are likely damaging whales more than boat noise, he also observed that whales are attracting a lot more attention today than in years past. Twenty years ago, Schmidt said, he was one of three whale cruise operators. Now there are about 30, with about 50 vessels. The rules include exceptions for working commercial fishery vessels, cargo ships in shipping lanes, residents going to shoreline homes, and research vessels.  Public comments on the new rules are being accepted through October 27, with the hope that they will go into effect next year.

UPDATE: NOAA extended the comment period through Jan 15, and has announced that analysis of the comments will take too long for the new rules to go into effect for the summer 2010 season.  Salmon fishermen have objected to the “no go” zone proposed for the west side of San Juan Island, and tour operators also are urging reconsideration of the 200 yard limit and no go zone.

Georgia Questions “Considerable Speculation” in Navy sonar range assessment

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The Navy is facing some push-back from the states of Georgia and Florida in the initial stages of gaining the necessary approvals for proceeding with their plans for a 500 square mile training range offshore from Jacksonville.  The Navy had hoped to have the states’ comments in hand by this week, but Florida expects to take several more weeks to assess the Navy’s plan, and the head of Georgia’s Coastal Resources Division submitted comments with fairly strongly worded notes of skepticism regarding the Navy’s just-released Final Environmental Impact Statement:  the letter says that the Navy’s forecasts “require considerable speculation and are insufficient to assess the anticipated impacts.”  Sonar travels differently depending on water conditions, and the Navy hasn’t done real-world measurements off Jacksonville to see whether its models of what will happen are right, said Clay George, a Natural Resources biologist. George also noted that while the designated critical habitat for wintering right whales extends to just 20 miles offshore, biologists have not done much surveying further offshore, and so the whales may well inhabit waters closer to the range.  Because of such shortcomings in the Navy’s analysis,  Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources wants long-term monitoring of how the range affects endangered right whales that raise their calves offshore from the two states each winter.  If the whales were harmed by sonar that would be used in submarine exercises, training at the range should change, the state told Navy officials in a letter last week. (Ed note: the Navy’s analysis does take account of uncertainty about the area inhabited by grey whales in winter by assuming that some will occur even within the training range; however, they also assume that virtually no whales will be affected by sounds traveling into the critical habitat, and they explicitly reject the option of doing less training in winter months when the whales are present. For more on the key question of distant effects of sonar sounds, scroll down to the July 24 post below, or click here to read the earlier post.)

In related news, the Florida Times-Union also reported that the Navy will separate its permit applications for construction and operation of the range.  The Navy expects NOAA approval for construction this week, but does not plan to apply for permits to operate the range until 2012 or 2013.  Likewise, the State of Florida this week announced that it will follow the Navy’s suggestion to similarly  follow a “phased” approach to issuing the necessary permits. In addition to sonar issues, Florida officials agreed to put off final judgments about how fast ships should travel in the training range, whether low-flying helicopters using the range will disturb right whales and how much debris from the training exercises will affect coral and other protected species on the ocean floor.  This may trigger legal challenges, though, as Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center responded to the news by saying that the phased approach “artificially separates the impacts to endangered species … that will result from both construction and operations.” According to Wannamaker, the Endangered Species Act doesn’t let the Navy spend money on the range without the National Marine Fisheries Service agreeing the project won’t jeopardize endangered species. (Ed. note: It appears from AEI’s admittedly naive legal perspective that the question of exactly what operational and mitigation measures are appropriate for the site can best be addressed at the time of the later permitting.  At this stage, there is little doubt that the Navy’s need for a littoral instrumented range is real and that the USWTR will proceed; the questions will include how much limitation on sonar activities should be imposed on the range while right whales are nearby.  There is no reason this cannot be addressed later, and indeed, there is likely to be better information at that time, including a revised Risk Assessment curve, which could well lead to more caution being imposed.)

Wisconsin Supreme Court Tosses Local Noise Limit on Windfarms

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In a startling and far-reaching decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that counties cannot issue “blanket” standards for wind farm development, but must assess each project on a case-by-case basis.  The ruling invalidated one of the nation’s most precautionary local ordinances, passed in 2008 by Calumet County, but also undermines the logic behind any uniform standard for wind farm regulation.  The Calumet County ordinance adopted an “audible sound” standard as well as an 1800-foot setback (though the Supreme Court ruling would apparently not allow either approach).  The audible noise standard would, in most cases, have been the more stringent limit, as it allowed only a maximum of 5dB above the background ambient sound level at the quietest time of day or night; it is likely that night-time ambient noise is in the range of 25-35dB.  This sort of standard is designed to assure that the wind farms do not appreciably change the character of the local soundscape, and will not become the loudest sound at any neighboring houses. In practice, the audible noise standard used would likely create difficulties in siting turbines closer than about a mile from most homes.  By contrast, industry proponents generally favor a 1000 or 1500-foot setback, or a noise limit of 45-55dB. (Note: half-mile setbacks are becoming more common, and recently an Australian shire joined other localities around the world in adopting a 2km setback, which equates to just over a mile.) At the time the ordinance was issued, industry spokesman responded that it would trigger the “war to end all wars” over wind development regulations; the recent ruling comes as the Wisconsin state legislature is working to adopt state-wide standards for wind development.  For more info, you can read several articles covering the recent ruling, this article covering the adoption of the ordinance, or see the ordinance itself.

USFWS Says No to Wind Farms in Sage Grouse Core Habitat

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service has drawn a clear line in Wyoming, stating that designated Core Habitat for the Sage Grouse must remain free of wind turbines.  Even turbines built in order to conduct further research on effects on sage grouse would “negate the usefulness of the core area concept,” according to a response from the FWS to inquiries from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.  In addition, mitigation aimed at minimizing the impacts of wind farms is considered inappropriate in these core habitat areas.  The implication is that any research efforts should take place in less critical habitat.  Aaron Clark, an adviser on energy infrastructure to Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal, said the governor’s office supports the Fish and Wildlife Service’s hard line on wind farms in core areas. “We don’t want to close the door on everything for ever,” Clark said. “If somebody can bring in some really good science that shows that wind turbines don’t have an adverse effect on sage grouse, obviously then our position needs to change. But everything we’ve seen so far is pointing the exact opposite way.” For more info, see this AP story, read a Press Release from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, or read the letter from the FWS to the State GFD.

UPDATE 8/13/09: Horizon Wind has indefinitely suspended its planning for one of the two wind farms planned for the sage grouse core habitat, though a spokesman affirms that “the project is not dead.”  This New York Times article provides a clear recap of Wyoming’s initial plan to allow two wind farms in the core habitat, in order to study their impacts as several other wind farms await approval. The state, which is working hard to avoid having the FWS list the grouse as endangered, had requested guidance on their plan, and received a rebuke from FWS.

AEI Summary of Navy EIS for Undersea Warfare Training Range

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In October, 2005, the Navy released the first of their sonar-inclusive EIS’s, a Draft Environmental Impact Statement covering plans for a 500 square mile Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), primarily for up to 480 anti-submarine mid-frequency active sonar exercises per year, including 100 ship-based events (2/week on average, lasting 3-4 hours each). This may serve to concentrate sonar training (i.e., less sonar training on other Navy ranges, since the USWTR will have installed instruments that improve assessment of the trainings and monitor for marine life), though planning continues for sonar training in all Navy ranges. The Navy considered USWTR sites off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Florida, and in June 2009, released a final EIS, proposing an area off Jacksonville as the site of the USWTR.

This site has raised some concerns from environmentalists and the State of Florida, as it lies offshore from critical habitat used by the Northern right whale as winter calving grounds; less than 400 whales remain and the health of every individual is important to population recovery.  The critical habitat extends to 15-20 miles from shore, with the USWTR beginning 50 miles from shore. The EIS includes several measures meant to minimize impacts on right whales; these protection measures mostly involve slowing ships and posting extra lookouts to avoid ship strikes. The Navy continues to refine its impacts modeling, incorporating new research including studies of population distribution and the effects of noise.  The bottom line for now is that the Navy expects that 100,000 dolphins and  over 2000 other whales will hear and change some behavior in response to sonar sounds each year (they suggest, with some justification, that these numbers–based on averaging population distributions–are likely to be over-estimates).

While most of the Navy’s assumptions and analyses are on fairly solid ground, a key one is more questionable: the assumption that few right whales will hear or react to sounds from the training ground.  The Navy’s own propagation estimates suggest noise levels within the critical habitat will reach levels that have often triggered behavioral disruption in whales.  It’s important that the Navy be pushed to do careful monitoring of the whales once the range is operational, and if they’ve underestimated impacts, they may need to minimize or avoid training in the winter, when the whales are nearby.   Read the rest of this entry »

Navy Says Right Whales Not at Risk Near New Training Range

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The US Navy has released a Final EIS for its long-planned Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), and has settled on an area off Jacksonville as its preferred location.  This was one of three areas under consideration, and marks a shift from earlier plans to locate the range off North Carolina, which met widespread resistance from state officials and environmental advocates.  The new range will host fairly intensive (average of 4x/month) active sonar training and other Navy training programs.  The USWTR will be about 50 miles offshore,  which the Navy feels is far enough to avoid acoustic impacts on wintering Right whales close to shore.  Environmental groups and the State of Florida continue to question the site’s appropriateness, largely due to concerns about impacts on this vulnerable whale population.  The range will be “instrumented,” meaning that there are permanently deployed acoustic (and many other) monitors on the seabed, allowing more comprehensive monitoring of animals within the range than is normally possible at sea.  However, concerns remain that the Navy’s mitigation plan is designed to prevent only physical injury, and that whales (especially young ones) may be behaviorally disrupted by much lower levels of sound at much greater distances.  The Navy has adopted several measures to minimize risk to Right whales while ships are transiting the near-shore critical habitat, but has rejected options that would minimize activity during the Dec-Mar season when whales are present.  Further mitigation may be imposed by NMFS when it publishes the final “Rule” after assessing the Navy’s EIS; NMFS has worked closely with the Navy as it developed the EIS, but with the advent of the new administration, is reassessing its own sonar-mitigation standards.  Note: AEI will offer further analysis of the Navy’s EIS in the coming weeks (and, sorry for being a bit slow getting this news up!).

Podcasts of Bay Area Recordist Talks

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Bay Area Sound Ecology has been hosting evening talks by great recordists from all over in recent months, and the evenings are all available for streaming or downloading on their website.  Go there and hear tales and stellar recordings from Chris Watson, Andrew Roth, James LeBrecht, and Gordon Hempton.

Recent Sound Science at

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After a bit of a lull, I’ve spent much of the past couple days catching up on the folder full of research published in recent months, and summarizing key papers on the main Acoustic Ecology site.  Among the studies worthy of attention are:

  • The first direct test of harbor porpoise sensitivity to seismic survey airguns confirms many observations from the field that this species is especially sensitive to noise; both temporary hearing loss and avoidance of sound occur at relatively low noise levels
  • Orcas and dolphins seen to reduce foraging in the presence of boat noise
  • Wind turbines don’t seem to replace most small wintering farm birds, but oil development noise can reduce forest bird abundance
  • Right whales summer habitat is loud most of the time, suggesting a pressing need to identify their breeding grounds and assure they can hear each other there
  • Two great overviews of fish hearing

See these and more at the AEI lay summaries of new research page.

IUCN Report on Mediterranean Shipping Calls for MPAs to Provide “Acoustic Comfort”

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From AEI’s lay summaries of key science and policy:

A comprehensive report on Mediterranean shipping from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources includes a long section in the early pages on noise impacts. Due to the concentration of shipping in the Mediterranean, ambient noise is 40dB higher than in relatively shipping-free regions such as the Sea of Cortez. Among the recommendations are that “Much effort should be devoted to developing a legal framework within which underwater noise is recognized and regulated as a threat,” and the advocacy of MPAs that are designed to provide acoustic protection to critical and productive habitats, where “noise levels should not be allowed to exceed ambient by more than a given value, including noise from sources located outside the MPA.” In addition, the report stresses the importance of moving rapidly to develop regional hydrophone networks with which to monitor noise and develop current “noise budgets,” as well as the need for expanded research using new non-invasive methods to examine hearing sensitivity and changes due to noise exposure in wild animals, and analysis of stress hormones in response to noise. The authors of the report forge important new ground as they summarize: “In addition to defining which impacts should be avoided or mitigated, we also need to draw up a model of ‘acoustic comfort’ that we should guarantee to animals, at least over sufficiently extensive protected areas. This is a novel concept. It means we should define the (near to) zero-impact noise level that a habitat should have for each type of marine life.”

Ameer Abdulla, Olof London (editors). 2008. Maritime traffic effects on biodiversity in the Mediterranean Sea: Review of impacts, priority areas and mitigation measures. Malaga, Spain: IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation. 184 pp. [DOWNLOAD(pdf)] [WEBSITE]

Open Sound New Orleans

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Music, ambiences, and stories from N'orleans!

Music, ambiences, and stories from N'orleans!

Yet another ear-opener in the recent surge of online soundmaps, and by gorey, this one might just be my favorite of them all! Could be due to a bit more personal connection to the city in question (visits, friends who’ve lived there), could be the quality of the sounds presented, or could be just that N’orleans is one of the more interesting urban communities out there.   Visit Open Sound New Orleans here, and hear an NPR story on the project here.

Ontario Study to Probe Health Effects of New Wind Farm

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For the first time, researchers have designed and initiated a broad-scale study that will provide enough data to begin to answer one of the key questions looming over wind energy development: do turbines close to residences create negative health effects?  The researchers sent health surveys to 1000 residents near a proposed wind farm; between 150 and 200 returned the survey, and received follow-up questionnaires as the wind farm completed construction.  Later rounds of study will seek to discover whether any reported changes in health are related to distance from the wind turbines, as well as correlating reported problems to individuals’ initial feelings about the new wind farm.   Read the rest of this entry »