Protecting cetaceans from sonar activities

26 October 2012


Kriton Arsenis (S&D)



On 30 November 2011, nine beaked whales washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Corfu. Two more whales washed up on the shores of southern Italy. Scientific examination of the mammals detected abnormalities such as gas embolisms and evidence of the diver’s disease which is caused by the rapid ascent of the marine animals. The evidence suggests that the most likely primary cause of this type of mass stranding is the use of anti-submarine sonar during naval exercises in the aforementioned region. Similar mass strandings, coinciding with NATO naval exercises, were also recorded in 2000 in Madeira and in 2002 and 2004 in the Canary Islands, according to D’Amico et al. (2009). Taking into consideration that a number of dead whales sank in the open sea and have thus not been recorded, there is uncertainty regarding the exact number of whales that have died in these regions. This uncertainty means that there is a real risk of extinction for some populations. This species is very sensitive to noise pollution and is listed as a Species of Community Interest under the Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC. It is also included in the priority list for the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS).

1. Has the Commission informed Member States regarding the consequences for the cetacean population of the use of sonar systems in naval exercises? Has the Commission urged Member States to take preventative measures? If not, is the Commission planning to do so?

2. Is there a monitoring and reporting system in place regarding the use of sonar equipment by the fisheries industry, in order to ensure cetacean protection? Is the Commission planning to establish such a system?

3. Has the Commission undertaken initiatives to raise the issue in international fora? If not, does it intend to do so?


Answer given by Mr Potočnik on behalf of the Commission

18 December 2012

The Commission has discussed with the Member States the possible effects of military activities on the environment and requested them to take national measures in accordance with requirements for the protection of cetaceans under the Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC(1). The issue of underwater noise is also addressed in the Commission guidelines on applying the Habitats Directive in the marine environment(2). Several other measures(3) have also been taken. However, further action is limited due to the lack of competencies in the field of military activities.

There is no monitoring or reporting system in place regarding the use of sonar equipment by the fishing industry but the Marine Strategy Framework Directive(4) does cover underwater noise and energy by sonar for non-military use in European marine waters. In 2014, Member States must design monitoring programmes on the basis of the 2012 assessment(5), followed one year later by the programme of measures. At present, a technical group for the implementation of the MSFD is developing monitoring advice to address loud impulsive low frequency underwater noise (from seismic surveys and piling wind farms) and ambient noise.

The Commission is committed to raising this issue in international fora, in particular at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals which adopted two Resolutions(6)on ocean noise. The Commission has also supported a decision taken by the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to, inter alia, encourage CBD Parties to promote research and take appropriate measures to minimise the adverse impact of anthropogenic underwater noise on marine biodiversity.

(1) OJ L 206, 22.7.1992.
(4) OJ 25.6.2008, L 164/25, §8.
(6) and