International regulation of underwater sound: Establishing rules and standards to address ocean noise pollution

Elena Marie McCarthy, University of Rhode Island


An increasing awareness of anthropogenic sound in the ocean has generated international concern that it is affecting marine mammal behavior and could affect entire marine ecosystems as well. Presently there is a lack of a coherent policy framework for evaluating the environmental impacts of underwater noise pollution. No international treaties or laws specifically address the transmission of sound in waters under national jurisdiction or on the high seas. This dissertation examines the issue of underwater noise pollution in a global context and considers the extent to which the international legal and environmental community has addressed it. ^ The sharp increase in ocean noise pollution is found to be a recent occurrence (within the last 100 years) resulting from the introduction of the internal combustion engine, sonar, and other technologies. Although a trend in increasing anthropogenic ocean noise is unsubstantiated, the intensity of noise in certain geographic areas is shown to have increased. Case studies are carried out on two such areas of intense acoustic activity, Stellwagen Bank and the Ligurian Sea. The important role of NGOs in raising awareness of underwater noise pollution is demonstrated and the effects of noise are shown to be both environmental and political externalities. Underwater noise is shown to be a transboundary pollutant that mandates an international as opposed to a purely national, or unilateral, approach. The 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea is identified as the appropriate international legal framework with which to begin to address ocean noise. Air pollution policy, specifically the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, is adopted as a comparative framework for the evolution of ocean noise pollution policy. ^ Recommendations are made for the development of appropriate policy regarding the use of sound in the ocean including the adoption of an ecosystembased approach to ocean noise pollution that incorporates all sources of underwater sound. Finally, the establishment of marine protected areas and the use of ocean zoning are presented as optimal policy instruments to regulate ocean noise pollution. ^

Subject Area

Biology, Oceanography|Political Science, International Law and Relations|Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture

Recommended Citation

Elena Marie McCarthy, "International regulation of underwater sound: Establishing rules and standards to address ocean noise pollution" (2003). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3103712.