It's time to turn down the volume in Canada's oceans

The ocean is often perceived as a silent world, but beneath the waves is a symphony of natural sounds: the grunts of fish, clicks of shrimp and songs of whales. Sound travels much faster and further in water than in air, and in marine environments where light is limited, it provides an effective means of communicating underwater.

Consequently, many marine animals – from invertebrates to giant whales – have evolved to depend on sound for key aspects of their lives. Humpback whales sing at low frequencies to communicate over vast distances and even across oceans by passing songs from one whale pod to another. Dolphins emit clicks to sense their surroundings through echolocation, while their signature whistles act like human names to identify individual dolphins. Spiny lobsters ward off predators with a screeching sound made by rubbing their antennae over a filelike structure near their eyes.

Many marine fish also depend on acoustic cues for critical life functions and have evolved some unique ways to generate sound. Some fish use their swim bladders like a drum, others use skeletal parts or teeth that rub and click together, and some fish like herring fart to communicate.

But the natural sounds of the ocean are being drowned out by human-made noise. Overwhelming evidence shows levels of underwater noise from human activities – including shipping, energy exploration, and deep-sea mining – has increased dramatically, causing harm and even death to many marine species.

Noise can dramatically alter the behaviours of animals, along with their ability to use sound to communicate, navigate, find food and mates and avoid predators. Noise from vessel traffic, for example, reduces the ability of Southern Resident killer whales to successfully catch food. Whales can lose more than 50% of their echolocation range when foraging near commercial ships, and reducing the orcas’ ability to hunt increases the risk of extinction of this endangered species. As traffic from cruise ships, cargo ships and oil and LNG tankers continues to rise, this noise is expected to grow.  

In response to growing scientific understanding of the harmful impacts of underwater noise, the Government of Canada has committed to developing a national Ocean Noise Strategy to protect whales and other marine life. However, progress has been slow and the federal government has yet to release its draft strategy, which was originally promised for summer 2021.

A national strategy is urgently needed to set a whole-of-government approach in motion, whereby departments and agencies deliver more meaningful actions by working together in a coordinated response to address underwater noise pollution.

To support the creation of a strong Ocean Noise Strategy, WWF-Canada commissioned West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL) and East Coast Environmental Law (ECEL) to conduct a legal analysis of relevant federal law and policy, with the primary aim of identifying existing legal tools to quiet Canada’s noisy oceans, and recommendations for any areas where new laws are required.

The findings reported in Canada’s Ocean Noise Strategy: Legislation and Policy Analysis show that Canada has fallen short in its piecemeal approach to managing ocean noise. While legal tools to protect underwater soundscapes do exist, they are underutilized and insufficient at safeguarding marine life.

Canada’s ocean laws were developed without noise in mind, and underwater noise is not explicitly addressed in Canada’s existing laws for conserving nature or regulating offshore industries, including oil and gas activities, offshore renewable energy, and shipping.

The good news is Canada has enough of a legal framework in place to immediately improve the management of ocean noise. The tools Canada has to protect the environment can be applied to develop legally binding thresholds and requirements for ocean noise, to reduce harm to species at risk, and to create “quiet” areas of the ocean for the marine life to thrive. These include the following:

  • The federal government can introduce legally binding marine environmental quality (MEQ) standards for underwater noise under the Oceans Act (Canada’s primary ocean law). The government can create MEQ standards through regulations, which could set legally binding and enforceable limits or thresholds for human-generated noise. This would allow the government to set clear targets for underwater noise pollution at local, regional and national scales.  
  • Canada can introduce specific measures to protect species at risk from underwater noise under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). SARA provides legal protections for species at risk (threatened, endangered, extirpated or special concern), but it has been criticized for its failure to define or set minimum noise thresholds needed to protect acoustic habitats. To ensure the protection and recovery of Canada’s most vulnerable species, the federal government should mandate noise limits for the marine habitats of all listed species at risk. To be meaningful, noise limits should be based on biological limits (the volume different species are able to withstand without adverse impacts), as well as scientific and Indigenous knowledge.  
  • Marine protected areas (MPAs) – ocean spaces where human activities are managed to conserve nature – offer another means to reduce exposure of marine animals to ocean noise. To date, ocean noise is not explicitly incorporated into any federal MPA laws, and thus marine species meant to be protected in MPAs can still be harmed by the effects of noise pollution. Federal agencies can manage underwater noise in MPAs to create quieter sanctuaries where noise-generating activities are restricted and natural soundscapes are maintained for species to thrive.  
  • Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) can be used to reduce or prevent the potential noise impacts of proposed development on a project-to-project basis. Results from EIAs can also provide useful data and insights to develop local and regional noise limits, and to inform other mitigation strategies like the adoption of quieter technologies.


Take Action

Despite the increasing threat of underwater noise on the marine environment, Canada’s Ocean Noise Strategy is still outstanding. We need the federal government to hear the call to turn down the volume on ocean noise. To make sure that the Strategy is meaningful, we must ensure that Canada fully deploys the laws it does have, as part of the solution.

Speak up for those whose voices are difficult to hear above water – send a letter to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, the Minister of Transport, and the Minister of Environment urging them to deliver a strong and effective Ocean Noise Strategy as soon as possible.




Top photo: William Zhou via Unsplash

Alessia Kockel, MPA Network Outreach & Project Coordinator
Stephanie Hewson, Staff Lawyer