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Draft Acoustic Guidance FAQs

What is the purpose of the Guidance?

The Guidance provides acoustic threshold levels for assessing the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammal species under NOAA Fisheries' jurisdiction. It identifies the received levels, or thresholds, above which individual marine mammals are predicted to experience changes in their hearing sensitivity (either temporary or permanent) for all underwater anthropogenic sound sources.

This is the first time NOAA Fisheries has presented acoustic threshold levels for marine mammals in a single, comprehensive document in order to improve consistent implementation across the array of relevant laws that protect marine mammals.

What are the acoustic threshold levels?

We have compiled, interpreted, and synthesized the best available science to produce updated acoustic threshold levels for the onset of both temporary and permanent hearing threshold shifts. The acoustic thresholds in this document identify the levels of sound, which after they are exceeded, NOAA anticipates (after evaluating and interpreting all available science) changes in auditory sensitivity (temporary or permanent threshold shift).

It is important to note that these updated acoustic threshold levels do not represent the entirety of an impact assessment, but rather serve as one tool to help evaluate the effects of a proposed action on marine mammals and make findings required by our various statutes.

Who should use the Guidance?

This Guidance is intended to be used by NOAA analysts and managers and other relevant user groups and stakeholders, including other Federal agencies, when seeking to determine whether and how their activities are expected to result in particular types of impacts to marine mammals via acoustic exposure.

Activities with the greatest potential to affect marine mammals by noise include:

What has changed between the updated acoustic threshold levels and the thresholds NOAA currently uses?

It is important to note the Guidance updates best available science, and does not change our regulatory application (e.g., issuing permits, conducting consultations, etc.). NOAA Fisheries is proposing updated acoustic threshold levels; however, our application of these thresholds under relevant statutes (Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Marine Sanctuaries Act) will remain consistent with past NOAA practice.

The current acoustic threshold levels, used for most sound sources, consist of a single threshold for cetaceans and a single threshold for pinnipeds regardless of sound source (i.e., they do not take into account the hearing ability of different marine mammal groups or the differences among sound sources in terms of auditory impacts). The updated acoustic threshold levels consist of several thresholds and when finalized will replace those currently in use by NOAA Fisheries. These thresholds reflect the best available science on the potential for noise to affect auditory sensitivity by:

NOAA recognizes that the acoustic threshold levels in the Acoustic Guidance are more complex than those previously used by applicants. Thus, NOAA has added an appendix to the Guidance that provides alternative methodology and tools to assist applicants in applying the more complex acoustic threshold levels.

What do we know about the effects of anthropogenic noise on marine mammal hearing?

We are using the best available science to develop our updated acoustic threshold levels, but we do not have a lot of information, especially from marine mammals in the wild. The data we have on hearing loss from noise exposure comes from laboratory studies on a few species (e.g., bottlenose dolphins, harbor porpoises, California sea lions, and harbor seals) and a limited number of individuals within those species. Where limited or no data are available, surrogate data from other marine mammal or terrestrial mammal species has been used. The threshold levels will help identify data gaps and encourage further research.

How will application of the acoustic threshold levels in the Guidance compare to what NOAA has used previously?

Given the specific nature of the guidance updates (e.g., different metrics, auditory weighting functions, etc.), it is not possible to directly compare the updated acoustic threshold levels with the thresholds previously used by NOAA.

The updated acoustic thresholds are more complex than those previously used by NOAA. For example, the new threshold levels include metrics for not only the level of exposure but also the duration of exposure, while the previous thresholds only account for level of exposures.  Additionally, the updated acoustic threshold levels take into account that not all marine mammals hear and use sound in the same way (i.e., functional hearing groups and auditory weighting functions), while previous thresholds only divided marine mammals into two basic groups (cetaceans and pinnipeds). NOAA has added an appendix to the Guidance that provides an optional methodology and tools to assist applicants and other members of the regulated community to apply the updated acoustic threshold levels.

In some situations (e.g., depending on sound source, species, and duration of exposure), updated acoustic thresholds may result in more exposures than previously applied thresholds, while in others they may result in less exposures. However, these updated acoustic threshold levels reflect the best available science on the potential for noise to affect auditory abilities of marine mammals.

Why is Guidance for behavioral response of marine mammals to sound not included in this document?

NOAA is continuing our examination of the effects of noise on marine mammal behavior and will focus our work over the next year on developing guidance regarding the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammal behavior. Behavioral response is a complex question and we determined we still need time to research and address it appropriately.

What is the review process for the Guidance?

The Guidance is classified as a Highly Influential Scientific Assessment by the Office of Management and Budget. Independent peer review is required prior to broad public dissemination by the Federal Government. These updated acoustic threshold levels have been peer-reviewed by independent scientific experts during an initial peer review. A second peer review was done to evaluate a new methodology proposed by the U.S. Navy. A third peer review was done to evaluate our updated methodology for defining threshold usage based on sources being characterized as impulsive or non-impulsive. The initial Guidance document was also shared with our partner Federal agencies for their informal input. To complete the review process for the initial Guidance, NOAA solicited input from stakeholders and the pubic via a public comment period and public meeting/webinar. An additional public comment period is being held for the updated Guidance.  More details on the review process are available on our website.

Why is there a need to conduct a second public comment period for the Guidance?

Since the close of the initial public comment period, NOAA has been working to address public comments and finalize the Guidance. During this time, new methodology for marine mammal auditory weighting functions and acoustic threshold levels have been developed by the U.S. Navy based on new science. Additionally, NOAA has re-evaluated its methods for defining threshold usage for sources characterized as impulsive or non-impulsive based on comments received during the initial public comment period. As a result, NOAA is proposing to solicit public comment on the updated draft guidance via a second 45-day public comment period.

What will happen to the comments made during the first public comment period?

NOAA plans to re-evaluate substantive comments made during the first public comment period to determine their relevancy to the updated Acoustic Guidance. NOAA’s responses to the initial public comments, as well as those made during this second public comment period, will be published in the Federal Register when the Guidance is finalized.

When will the Guidance be finalized and become effective?

NOAA Fisheries will publish our final acoustic Guidance document after we review and incorporate all public comments on the proposed draft. We anticipate having the Guidance finalized in late 2015.

Updated: July 30, 2015