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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI grad advocating for international policies to regulate ocean noises

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

Newly published dissertation is first to recommend zoning,
other policies to protect marine life

KINGSTON, R.I. -- September 21, 2004 -- After earning a master's degree in marine affairs from the University of Rhode Island in 1990, Elena McCarthy worked at an undersea research center in Italy where she stumbled upon a problem that needed consideration.

"Some whales in the Mediterranean were thought to have been killed by military sonar, but the sonar was American, it was deployed by a NATO ship flying a German flag, and the whales washed up on the coast of Greece. I realized that there aren't any international laws or regulations governing the impact of ocean noises," said McCarthy, a Jamestown native living in Italy.

So she returned to URI to learn more about ocean law and policy on her way to earning a Ph.D. under the guidance of Professor Lawrence Juda. Her dissertation, International Regulation of Underwater Sound: Establishing Rules and Standards to Address Ocean Noise Pollution, was published as a book last month, and it's one of the first to assess and recommend marine policies related to manmade ocean noise.

According to McCarthy, noises in the ocean come from a myriad of sources, among them sonars, shipping, oil and gas exploration, and coastal construction. These sounds can travel thousands of miles in the water, making regulation by any one country ineffective, since noises made in the coastal waters of one country can easily impact the marine life of other countries.

"We know these noises affect marine mammals, either physiologically or behaviorally. The animals may change their migration path or the noise may interfere with their communication. Moreover, noise could potentially affect the whole ecosystem -- fish, krill, shrimp -- not just mammals. If you disturb the krill you're disturbing the whole food chain," she said.

So McCarthy devised a variety of recommendations aimed at reducing noise pollution in the oceans and addressing its impacts.

"In some cases, establishing marine protected areas will help protect wildlife. Technological solutions, like ship quieting, can also be effective," said McCarthy, whose research was funded in part by a fellowship from the Switzer Foundation. "The primary idea I put forward is to use zoning regulations like we have on land."

McCarthy said that many communities regulate noise in neighborhoods at a certain decibel level after 10 p.m., for instance. She advocates that similar regulations could be enacted in certain regions of the ocean at particular times of the year.

"This idea needs to be addressed by the international community," she said.

McCarthy is doing what she can to get the attention of government officials and regulators. She spoke at a symposium on the effect of shipping noise on marine mammals in May and will address an international meeting of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission in London this month. Her ideas are also being discussed by the International Whaling Commission and other international conservation organizations.

While she expects to continue to bring attention to this issue while working in Italy, she plans to eventually move back to Jamestown and teach.