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Article: Anthropogenic sound - the pollution you may not have heard of

13 February 2019


The vast acoustic potential of the deep ocean has created wildlife that has evolved to use (and rely on) sound as a medium to exist. However, these organisms’ ability to communicate with one another, perceive prey or find potential mates can be disturbed by noise pollution, also known as anthropogenic sound. The shipping industry is the primary cause of anthropogenic sound but at present international laws and guidelines do little to negate this. This begs the question whether anything more stringent will be introduced and, if so, what effect this may have on cover and costs to members/other parties in the industry.

The impact of the shipping industry

As one may expect there are an array of contributors to anthropogenic sound. Our key focus however is the effects of vessel movement and vessel frequency (10 Hz - 1 kHz) on marine fauna. 90% of global trade is seaborne and the movement of people and their goods is primarily at fault for this acoustic bleaching of the sea - large vessels of all types are producing noise from their engines, propellers, generators and bearings. The acoustic space for marine fauna has been so reduced that their capacity to migrate, mate and feed has decreased dramatically.

Regulatory landscape

The alarming reality is that the IMO has only created guidelines that address the issue of sound pollution – the lack of concrete regulations is born out of the difficulty in quantifying and measuring anthropogenic sound. Like many other types of pollution, the drive towards stricter regulations is likely to derive from a ‘big event’ that fuels the media and public perception to force change. For example, recent media attention on New Zealand’s cruise industry after 60 seabirds were found on the deck of a vessel due to an attraction to the vessels’ lights has resulted in a concerted effort / local industry initiative to dilute light pollution from cruise ships.

A technological solution

There is no question that the technology is available to limit the anthropogenic sound emanating from ships. For example, low-propulsion and vibration reducing systems allow research and military vessels to go about their business without damaging the marine environment to the same extent. However, as we have witnessed from recent amendments to MARPOL’s Annex VI, there are significant implications to industry-wide implementation of new technology, and the cost of installing/avoiding fines may be another burden on shipowners.


Shipowners should be aware of this form of pollution and the club will be alive to developments to help shipowners ensure they comply with relevant legislation as it arises.