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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI grad student earns environmental fellowship
to study regulation of underwater sound

KINGSTON, R.I. -- September 18, 2001 -- Jamestown resident Elena McCarthy, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Marine Affairs, has been awarded a $13,000 environmental fellowship from the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation. The fellowship will help to fund her dissertation research into the international regulation of underwater sound.

McCarthy became interested in the regulation of underwater sound after hearing that several whales had beached themselves in Greece. There were concerns that NATO ships, which were conducting sonar trials at the time, may have been responsible for the whales becoming stranded.

"I’m really interested in the policy aspects of noise in the ocean, because currently there doesn’t seem to be any way of determining who’s responsible for the problems it may cause," McCarthy explained. "I’m looking at what policy instruments could be used to regulate noise and how it should be viewed. Is noise a pollutant? Does the law of the sea apply?"

Most of the manmade noises in the ocean are caused by ships – engine sounds, propellers, hull noises and sonar – but oil rig construction and the explosive charges used in oil exploration also contribute to the abundance of underwater noise.

"The biggest concern is that marine mammals are negatively affected because they use their own sonar to help them navigate, find food and communicate," said McCarthy. "But there are also concerns that it could affect the whole food chain. It may be affecting small fish and even changing fertility rates."

McCarthy is researching ocean-related laws, treaties and conventions all around the world. "Noise in the ocean can travel very far, so it has become an international issue."

According to Lawrence Juda, professor of marine affairs at URI, other researchers have investigated the science of underwater sound, but the study of the international regulation of sound is relatively new. "Elena brings to this subject her technical and scientific expertise as an engineer, and she joins with that her knowledge of legal and policy matters. So she is eminently suited to do this kind of research," he said.

The Switzer Foundation was established by the family of the inventor of fluorescent paints. Its environmental fund provides 20 fellowships each year to students in California and New England. McCarthy was nominated by Juda, her faculty adviser, and was interviewed by the foundation board in New Hampshire.

"I was apprehensive about the interview because, as an engineer with the Navy, I have a very different background from all the other environmentalists who were applying," said McCarthy, who calls herself an underwater acoustician. "I’m thrilled they picked an engineer, and pleased that they saw that this issue is important."

McCarthy is on leave from her job at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, where she is an engineer in one of its sonar groups. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s degree in ocean engineering from URI.

For Information:Todd McLeish 874-7892

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