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Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts

MSFD Descriptor 11: Energy incl. Underwater Noise

“Introduction of energy, including underwater noise, is at levels that do not adversely affect the marine environment”

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive identifies anthropogenic inputs of substance and energy into the maritime environment like underwater noises as pollution. It also dedicates one of the specific qualitative descriptors to define good environmental status to this issue (descriptor 11).

Commission Decision (EU) 2017/848 of 17 May 2017 defines good environmental status of marine waters, and lays down criteria, specifications and standardised methods for their monitoring and assessment. As part of this, it sets out how to assess the extent to which good environmental status is being achieved for impulsive and continuous noise. For this, it considers the spatial distribution, temporal extent and the levels of anthropogenic noise :

D11 criteria 1 — The spatial distribution, temporal extent, and levels of anthropogenic impulsive sound sources do not exceed levels that adversely affect populations of marine animals.

D11 criteria 2 — The spatial distribution, temporal extent and levels of anthropogenic continuous low-frequency sound do not exceed levels that adversely affect populations of marine animals.

In both cases, Member States shall establish threshold values for these levels through cooperation at Union level, taking into account regional or subregional specificities.

What are the main sources of energy in the marine environment?

Human sources of energy in the marine environment are commonly related to transport, mining and fishing and construction. The effects of recreation and industries can also be experienced in coastal waters.

Sources of energy include:

  • Shipping for trade or tourism, like ferries or cruise ships, recreation boats and fishing boats, which all produce noise;
  • The use of sonar systems by all kinds of vessels;
  • Construction (especially through piling and seismic surveys) of offshore oil and gas platforms and wind parks;
  • Dredging for shipping lanes, sand mining and for laying pipes and cables;
  • Operation of platforms and their lights;
  • Submarine cables carrying electric power emits electromagnetic fields into the underwater environment;
  • Cooling water systems for industry, which raise water temperature;
  • Military activities, which produce noise.

Picture: today’s ocean soundscape
Figure 1 : today’s ocean soundscape. Credit : Amy Dozier / European Marine Board / JONAS project


What is done at EU level to reduce underwater noise?

As part of their marine strategies, required under the MSFD, EU Member States have developed monitoring programmes for descriptor 11 and implemented various measures aimed at maintaining noise at levels that do not cause harm to marine ecosystems. These include defining specific areas for both impulsive and continuous noise, developing eco-friendly ships, raising awareness, carrying out research and developing guidelines for noise assessments.

Other European laws on environmental impact assessments and nature protection contribute to the reduction of underwater noise :

  • Directive 2011/92/EU on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment (as amended by Directive 2014/52/EU) applies to all Member States. It requires the environmental effects of certain public and private projects likely to have significant effects on the environment inter alia by virtue of their size, nature or location to be assessed before the projects are authorised.
  • The EU’s Habitats and Birds Directives (Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora and Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds) are also relevant. Natura 2000 sites designated to protect features such as marine animal species listed the Habitats Directive require measures to avoid any significant disturbance of those species. Different human activities that are likely to have a significant effect on these sites need to be assessed and authorised in accordance with the provisions of the Habitats Directive. This provision also includes the obligation to assess the cumulative impacts of different activities on the conservation objectives of the site.
  • Furthermore, provisions of the Habitats Directive include an obligation to prohibit deliberate disturbance of strictly protected species. These provisions are also particularly relevant as all cetaceans and a number of marine vertebrates and invertebrates benefit from a system of strict protection. In addition, the Commission guidance document on ‘establishing Natura 2000 sites in the marine environment’ contains a specific section on noise pollution.
  • The EU’s European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) provides open access to data and digital maps of underwater noise that are helping analysts determine its sources and level in order to develop measures for reducing its impact.


The technical Group on Underwater Noise (TG Noise) : towards a coordinated implementation of D11.

In order to steer this work and advise EU Member States on the operational implementation of descriptor 11, a technical group on underwater noise ("TG Noise") was set up in 2011. This group is a sub-group of the Marine strategy coordination group, established for a harmonised implementation of the MSFD.

It consists of nationally-nominated experts with experience in different regions and relevant scientific expertise. Observer can also participate provided that they have officially been granted this status (based on the Commission expert groups rules of procedures).

Back in 2011, anthropogenic underwater sound was an emerging topic. Little was known about the levels and effects of underwater sound and advice was needed to develop monitoring of underwater noise descriptors, as defined in the 2010/477/EU Commission Decision on good environmental status (no longer in force). In particular, proposals for methodological standards for monitoring both types of underwater noise were needed. The technical group could also provide a common platform on how to develop objectives (characteristics of GES), environmental targets and associated indicators

So far, the work implemented at EU and regional levels through TG Noise, focused on monitoring issues and was closely related to activities undertaken in regional seas conventions. Such work included the publishing of monitoring guidance for underwater noise in the European Seas. It also comprises the setting up of a register of loud impulsive noise and the development of a joint monitoring programme for continuous noise. Consequently, significant progress has been made in this field during the first cycle of implementation of MSFD.

Since 2017 and the adoption of Commission Decision 2017/848, TG Noise is focussing on the assessments of impacts of noise and the development of thresholds in relation to the indicators developed in the framework of the MSFD, as described above :


Regional cooperation is key to strengthen coherence of actions aiming at reducing underwater noise.

In Europe, the MSFD is also implemented through European Regional Seas Conventions (RSCs) such as the convention of Oslo-Paris (OSPAR) for the North-East Atlantic, the Helsinki convention (HELCOM) for the Baltic Sea, the Barcelona Convention for the Mediterranean Sea and the convention on the protection of the Black Sea against pollution. The Directive requires EU Member States to coordinate their actions on marine waters in these regions and their sub-regions using relevant mechanisms and structures of RSCs and other relevant international forums. Making use of the experiences and existing cooperation in monitoring, RSCs have played an essential role in developing and starting joint programmes to monitor underwater sound.

Most of these conventions have technical working groups dedicated to the issue of underwater noise (HELCOM EN-Noise, OSPAR ICG-Noise). The HELCOM and OSPAR work on impulsive sound monitoring has led to one combined register for impulsive sound available at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). These conventions are now focusing on the development of noise indicators at regional level, taking into account the ongoing work at EU level within TG Noise. In that regard, representatives of regional seas conventions are invited to participate to TG Noise meetings and scientific seminars, to share information and best practices. HELCOM has also adopted a regional action plan on underwater noise, in line with the commitments made in the HELCOM Ministerial Declaration adopted in 2018 under the EU Presidency. This plan is also part of the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan adopted on 20 October 2021 providing a vision to achieve good environmental status of the Baltic Sea by 2030. The OSPAR North East Atlantic Environment Strategy 2030 adopted on 1 October 2021 also sets up a target to adopt a regional action plan for underwater noise for the OSPAR region by 2025. In the Mediterranean and Black Seas, the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS) is taking forward work on underwater noise on behalf of the Barcelona Convention.

Last but not least, several Eu-funded projects also contribute to strengthening regional cooperation to reduce underwater noise and increase knowledge on that issue, thus contributing to the implementation of the MSFD. The TG Noise has updated in 2022 it's communication report making an inventory of past and ongoing EU-funded projects on underwater noise (currently being updated).


The European Green Deal : a new framework of actions for the future

The protection of the marine environment and the development of a sustainable blue economy are important components of the European Green Deal, which sets a new framework for actions on underwater noise reduction:

  • The Zero pollution action plan provides a vision for 2050 where marine pollution is reduced to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems, in respect of our planet boundaries, thereby creating a toxic-free environment.
  • The EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 is a comprehensive, ambitious and long-term plan to protect nature and reverse the degradation of ecosystems. The strategy aims to put Europe's biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030, and contains specific actions and commitments.
  • The new approach for a sustainable blue economy in the EU and the offshore renewable energy strategy define the core principles for the development of sustainable marine and maritime activities, while meeting the EU’s environmental and climate objectives set up by the European Green Deal.

In that regard, the MSFD, with its ecosystem-based approach, is an essential tool to achieve the ambitious objectives enshrined in those initiatives. Its ongoing review, building on the MSFD implementation report adopted in June 2020, aims to identify if elements of the current framework could be improved to protect the marine environment more effectively and efficiently, while benefiting from our seas and ocean sustainably.