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Soundings Archive

Can MMAC Produce a Consensus Report?
The Marine Mammals Advisory Committee met April 19-21 to discuss a "draft final report" on acoustic effects on marine mammals. Based on discussion during the meeting and on written statements produced at the meeting, the MMAC will have considerable difficulty producing a consensus final report.

The MMAC is composed of a diverse range of stakeholders. It includes representatives from:

  • Federal regulatory agencies like the National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS") and Minerals Management Service ("MMS");

  • Federal government and private industry 'noise producers' like the Navy, and oil and gas companies.1

  • Environmental non-government organizations ("NGOs"); and

  • Universities and other academic research institutions.

Each group may or may not agree among themselves about what the final MMAC report should say. Based on the MMAC meeting, the groups certainly do not agree with each other on all issues. The level of this disagreement can be sensed by a position paper the "Research Caucus" (i.e., the academic researchers) distributed at the beginning of the MMAC meeting. Their position paper stated in part:

"The position paper prepared last year by the research caucus has been ignored.

If there is progress on our issues over the next 2 days, continue in current process to develop report.

If not, interest in developing an alternate report for inclusion in MMC report to Congress. "2

Based on the MMAC meeting, the Research Caucus may not be alone in submitting an alternative report.

An NGO representative on the MMAC stated during the meeting that the NGOs would submit a separate report if the current draft is not substantially changed.

At the end of the meeting, the Agency, Private Industry, and Research Caucuses expressed joint and grave concern with the NGOs's position on many issues, and indicated they may be unable to join with the NGOs on a final paper.

    Three, but not the only three, major disputed issues are:

    • The need for further basic research on the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals;

    • The need to regulate acoustic effects on a population level rather than an individual mammal level; and

    • The adequacy of the current mitigation measures applied by sound producers.

Underlying these and most other issues is the problem of doing acoustic research on marine mammals. Whales, seals, etc..., have been described as 'charismatic mega-fauna.' They are not lab rats, and potentially harmful acoustic-effects research on marine mammals is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Consequently, if more basic data are needed by the MMAC with regard to the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals, then it's hard to tell where the data are going to come from.

The NGOs's position appears to be that anthropogenic sound does adversely affect marine mammals, and there is no need for further research on this issue. According to the NGOs:

"There is compelling evidence that increasing levels of anthropogenic sound are adversely affecting marine mammals....While research is needed to refine management, action cannot wait for scientific certainty." 3

Based on their position statements and comments at the meeting, none of the other caucuses agree with the NGOs's position. All the other interest groups believe there is a compelling need for more basic effects research in order to assess the risk, if any, that anthropogenic noise has on marine mammals.4

The Research Caucus agrees with the NGOs that "[w]e know individual animals can be adversely affected by exposure to anthropogenic sound." However, the Research Caucus also believes that "[a]dverse effects on anthropogenic sound on marine mammal populations have not been scientifically demonstrated."5

The Private Industry Caucus at the meeting stated their position on the effects issue as follows:

    "Marine mammals are potentially affected by sounds generated in the oceans.
    Compared to other anthropogenic impacts on marine mammals, we believe sound is a second order effect.
    No scientific studies have conclusively demonstrated a link between exposure to sound and adverse impacts on marine mammals population. (NRC '05).
    For sounds generated by industry:
    There are no known injuries to marine mammals
    There are no known behavioral effects that have led to population level impacts.
    There is a disagreement as to the extent of the problem among other stakeholders."

The Agency Caucus at the MMAC meeting stated (perhaps understated is a better word) that, "[l]arge uncertainties in all areas fuel public controversy."7

Nevertheless, while agreeing on the need for more basic research, the federal regulators and the Navy in the Agency Caucus emphasized their belief that "[c]urrent mitigation and management are best that can be done with existing information."8

The NGOs do not agree. They believe that current mitigation measures need be significantly changed, with or without new effects data, to include:

    "(1) Geographical/seasonal exclusions
    (2) Source reduction or elimination
    (3) Operational restrictions, including as a matter of priority temporal restrictions, best practice safety zones (3km), trained mammal observers, and passive acoustic monitoring" 9

Emphasizing the diversity of views on mitigation (and on virtually every other issue), the Industry Caucus stated that the regulators should:

    "Continue to conduct risk assessments using the best available scientific information

  • Employ mitigation measures that manage the risk of physical injury to marine mammals

  • If behavioral effects lead to population level effects, employ additional measures specifically designed for and commensurate with the risk of the circumstance." 10

When their turn came, the Research Caucus emphasized the need to manage "all sound sources," not just Navy sonar and oil and gas seismic effects.11 Including all anthropogenic sound sources into the report and regulatory scheme may be a good idea, but it would guarantee further disharmony and disagreement.

In sum, the MMAC does not agree among themselves as to key issues. More important for Report purposes, they do not agree among themselves as to what a final Report should say. Anyone who wants to bet the farm that there will be dissenting opinions in any final Report would be making a good bet.

1The Navy lives in at least two worlds for purposes of the MMAC. Even though the Navy produces noise and is regulated like private industry, it huddled with the "Agency Caucus" along with regulators like NMFS and MMS at the meeting. Click here for a Statement of the Problem position paper distributed at the MMAC meeting which shows distribution of individual parties into caucuses:Click here.

2Click here for Research Caucus Position Paper that they distributed at the MMAC meeting.

3Click here.

4Click here for the four caucuses's statement of "Information Needs" that was distributed at the MMAC meeting.

5Click here (emphasis in the original).

6Click here. The "NRC 05" reference is to the National Resource Commission Report available at

7Click here.

8Click here for the four caucuses's position paper on Mitigation/Management that was distributed at the MMAC meeting.

9Click here.

10Click here.

11Click here.

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