To explain the noise impacts, Dragon uses an analogy of trying to communicate in a crowded bar where it's difficult to hear. "In the ocean, sound is king," she says. "This chronic, noisy, foggy environment ... has a masking effect. It might mean whales will not be able to navigate correctly, or may not be able to communicate with mates or offspring."
The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary supports a rare concentration of blue whales, partly because the water is rich in nutrients, biodiversity, and tiny, shrimp-like creatures called krill. Blue whales and endangered humpbacks forage there from April through November, the colossal blues consuming an astounding 4 tons of krill each day.
At an April 8 joint meeting between the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank marine sanctuary advisory councils, the groups discussed creating a working group — bringing together stakeholders from the U.S. Coast Guard, shipping industries, and others — to establish a set of recommendations for how to regulate noise pollution in the sanctuaries.
"The purpose is to better understand the issue from the standpoint of the sanctuary," explains Lance Morgan, who chairs the Cordell Bank council. "Ideally, we'd produce a report that says, here's what we think the issues are."
Yet Morgan acknowledges that it won't be easy to get the federal government to impose new sanctuary regulations since there are still so many outstanding questions. "We're learning a lot about the acoustic environment," he says. One concern is whether whales are actually able to perceive the sound of the giant shipping vessels, he notes, since the environment has become so noisy. If they can't hear the ships, they're at a much higher risk of collision. "We certainly know we can drown out whale calls in certain situations," he says, "but what does that mean in the long term?"
There are around 14,000 blue whales left across the entire watery globe, according to the most optimistic estimates, just a sliver of the estimated 300,000 that lived before they were nearly harpooned to extinction during a ruthless whaling era. Scientists are encouraged that their numbers have climbed since the mid-1960s when they were listed as endangered.
Yet even with this mild success story as a backdrop, there is growing concern about potential long-term effects of underwater industrial noise. Navy sonar, military air guns, and blasts from seismic surveys all contribute to the problem at varying frequencies. The collective din of ocean noise has doubled every decade since the 1950s, and the shipping business is only expected to grow.
Maersk, the world's largest shipping company, runs weekly container ships from Hong Kong to ports in Oakland and Long Beach, a journey lasting more than two weeks. Getting the goods there on time is "the most important thing to our customers," says Lee Kindberg, the company's environment director.
The container ships arrive crammed full of everything from electronics — which require special climate-controlled containers — to clothing, bath products, household items, and pharmaceuticals. Perishable items are transported in refrigerators, consuming a third more energy and powered by auxiliary engines. Up to 8,000 containers can be packed onto a single ship, and the average vessel size has expanded around 20 percent in the past five years. More than 90 percent of the world's traded goods are transported by water, with shipments on container vessels increasingly rapidly.
If ever there was an icon for globalization, and all that the buy-local and sustainability movements rail against, it would be a diesel-powered container ship transporting heavily packaged stuff halfway across the globe.