Vancouver noise mitigation efforts

Ambient noise from storms, waves and currents together with sounds of vessels moving through the ocean are heard by whales, cetaceans and other marine life affecting their experience underwater Photo: Joan Lopez
Ambient noise from storms, waves and currents together with sounds of vessels moving through the ocean are heard by whales, cetaceans and other marine life affecting their experience underwater Photo: Joan Lopez
The long-term goal of the ECHO programme is to better understand the impact of shipping activity on at-risk whales Photo: Beamreach
The long-term goal of the ECHO programme is to better understand the impact of shipping activity on at-risk whales Photo: Beamreach
The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority tries to balance operational needs of the port with its desire to limit noise impactsPhoto: Joan Lopez
The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority tries to balance operational needs of the port with its desire to limit noise impacts Photo: Joan Lopez
Carrie Brown
Carrie Brown
Industry Database

Canada's Port of Vancouver is home to a stunning coastline and waterways rich with pristine water and dramatic shorelines shared with more than 20 species of marine mammals. But ambient noise from storms, waves and currents together with sounds of vessels moving through the ocean are heard by whales, cetaceans and other marine life affecting their experience underwater writes Carrie Brown, director environmental programmes, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is responsible for the stewardship of the federal port lands in and around Vancouver, British Columbia and is federally mandated to facilitate Canada’s trade objectives while protecting the environment and considering local communities. The port authority manages the Port of Vancouver, which is Canada’s largest port and the third largest tonnage port in North America.

Port operations are industrial by nature and in some cases operate 24/7. This creates noise from ship engines, car and truck traffic, construction, train whistles, rail car movements, warning signals and safety alarms. All of these activities can affect the quality of life for local communities, particularly as the region grows.

In order to reduce the impact of port activities on the environment and the communities in which we operate, a number of initiatives have been put in place by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. We have a dedicated team of environmental specialists who work with our tenants, terminals and others to reduce air emissions, reduce electricity use, improve and create wildlife habitat, and minimise noise impacts to protect the environmental sustainability of the port.

With projected population increases in our surrounding port communities, comes an increase in trade demand. As port activity continues to grow, mitigating the noise associated with increased port operations is an area of growing importance for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, both underwater and on land.

Impacts, research and mitigation

The province of British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province located between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains, is a dynamic and growing international trade gateway. It also has a productive coastal ecosystem that sustains populations of whales, porpoises and dolphins (cetaceans).

Much of the commercial vessel activity in the southern coast of British Columbia transits designated critical habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whale as well as areas known to be of importance to other threatened and at-risk whales. With predicted growth in commercial vessel activity, it is critical our operations are conducted in a responsible and sustainable manner that safeguards and promotes continual protection of the environment.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada published Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategies and Action Plans for a number of at-risk whale species in the west coast region of Canada.

They determined that some of the key threats to whales in this region include: acoustic disturbance (underwater noise), physical disturbance (ship collisions), environmental contaminants, and the availability of prey. The recovery strategies also suggest that increased vessel traffic is responsible for the increase in ambient noise levels detected over the last 100 years.

Underwater vessel noise is a threat to marine animals as it interferes with their ability to communicate. Whales use sound to find prey, rest, mate and reproduce and avoid danger.

In an effort to better understand the cumulative impacts of all shipping activities on whales and cetaceans throughout the southern coast of British Columbia, the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) programme was developed. This programme is a collaborative research and management initiative led by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority with advice and guidance of government agencies, First Nations individuals, marine industry users, environmental and conservation organisations and scientific experts.

The ECHO programme supports a series of individual short-term projects, scientific studies and education initiatives to study these impacts and better inform mitigation solutions. Underwater noise is a priority study area that the ECHO programme is addressing and has engaged acoustic technical experts including marine mammal researchers, naval architects and acoustic specialists to help develop a work plan for the ECHO programme to address underwater noise.

One of the projects the ECHO team is working collaboratively with several partners on, is an underwater listening station in the Strait of Georgia. The Underwater Listening Station was installed in September 2015 in collaboration with Transport Canada, University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada, JASCO Applied Sciences and Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. The underwater listening station captures ship noise, marine mammal vocalisations and general background noise. In October of 2016, the underwater listening station was lifted for annual maintenance and lowered back down for its second year of operation.

Additional projects underway that are related to underwater noise include:

* Monitoring baseline regional ambient underwater noise conditions through a network of hydrophones in the Salish Sea.
* Identifying and quantifying the underwater noise contributions from various vessel sectors to overall regional ocean noise.
* Using a computer model to compare the behavioural response of killer whales to large commercial vessel noise versus the noise generated by whale watching boats.
* Presenting the impacts of underwater noise on marine mammals to local mariners through an education outreach programme.

The aim of these projects is to inform the development of potential mitigation options and innovative solutions to reduce underwater noise in the region. Potential mitigation measures may include such things as incentives or recognition for the use of green vessel technology, changes to operational activities of ocean going vessels, recognition of certification programmes for quiet vessels and the potential for development of noise criteria for vessels entering the port.

On 1 January 2017, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority added a new incentive category to its existing EcoAction programme to include harbour due rate discounts in the Port of Vancouver for quiet-vessel ship classifications and propeller technologies shown to reduce underwater noise. This makes the Port of Vancouver one of the first ports in the world with marine noise reduction incentives. 

The long-term goal of the ECHO programme is to better understand the impact of shipping activity on at-risk whales and develop mitigation measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential threats as a result of shipping activities.

Port-related noise

Above the water, port-related operational noise is a concern raised by neighbouring residents, as well as regional, federal and international health authorities. The Port of Vancouver is an urban port bordering on 16 municipalities.

As a federal port authority, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority tries to balance operational needs of the port – which includes our terminals and tenants, railways, trucking, marine supply chains – with our desire to limit noise impacts on surrounding communities and the environment.

While the port, along with most urban activities, cannot operate effectively without generating noise, the port authority is working with terminals, trucks, railways, and vessel operators to reduce noise from routine operations, as well as mitigate or avoid other noise sources, when it is safe and practical to do so.

To gain a better understanding of the existing noise environment and identify areas of concern, the port deployed a series of long-term permanent noise monitoring terminals along key trade areas within the port. This noise monitoring system is able to capture sound levels from port terminals, industrial activities and urban activities in real time 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

The 11 long-term noise monitoring stations in locations across the port are a globally standard system which include a microphone to measure and record noise, an instrumentation enclosure and a secure wireless data transmission. Locations for the noise monitors were chosen based on the recommendation of noise and acoustics experts, and on feedback we received from the community. Consideration was given to land ownership and accessibility, access to power and service, and coverage area of port activities.

Data is streamed around the clock, 365 days a year and managed through the Brüel & Kjær Noise SentinelTM application. The application provides a public web portal for viewing real-time data throughout the port's Noise Monitoring Network, which is also available as a mobile app.

When users go to Port of Vancouver’s Noise Sentinel webpage, three pieces of data will be available:

1. Real time noise levels as recorded by the monitors and shown in decibels (dBA, a standard measure for noise).
2. A graph that allows the user to select various time scales - hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly – to show trends over that time.
3. Sound Clip Events show up as musical notes in the bottom graph and represent a sound recording available for listening.

We created a noise monitoring programme to better understand the source and intensity of port-related noises, how the noise may trend over time and to better respond to community concerns. Our community feedback line provides a point of contact for the community, and enables us to track issues and try to resolve them. We will soon complete our 2016 annual noise monitoring reports for land-side noise and will be able to compare to our first year in 2015 to determine any noise trends.

Environmental review 

In addition to mitigation efforts the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority carries out for existing port operations, the port authority also assesses the potential for noise and other environmental impacts from proposed projects on port lands during our Project and Environmental Review process and we have developed guidelines for proponents to assist them in conducting noise assessments. 

We also incorporated noise mitigation into new infrastructure projects. For example, the Low Level Road Project in North Vancouver includes a noise wall to limit sound transmission, and sloped surfaces to deflect the noise upward and away from the adjacent community. The project has won several engineering awards including the Platinum Award from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) Envision for sustainable infrastructure.

While port noise can never be completely eliminated, initiatives like the ECHO programme and the noise-monitoring network allow us to better identify, understand and track noise issues and work in collaboration toward mitigation and solutions.

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