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News article29 November 2022Directorate-General for Environment

Zero pollution and Biodiversity: First ever EU-wide limits for underwater noise

Dolphins swimming in blue waters.

Underwater noise due to human activities at sea can harm marine biodiversity, leading for example to hearing impairment and behavioural disturbances. EU experts have adopted recommendations on maximum acceptable levels for impulsive (for example from oil and gas exploration and extraction) and continuous (such as from shipping) underwater noise.

Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said:

On the road towards COP 15 in Montreal, the EU is taking action today to better protect marine life from underwater noise. The new, evidence-based noise pollution limits will help restore our seas, whilst steering us towards using them in a more sustainable way, in alliance with the life they host.

The new limits mean, that to be in tolerable status, no more than 20% of a given marine area,   can be exposed to continuous underwater noise over a year Similarly, no more than 20% of a marine habitat can be exposed to impulsive noise over a given day, and no more than 10% over a year. 

These underwater noise pollution limits deliver on the Zero Pollution Action Plan and are the first of this kind at global level.

The threshold values will contribute to set limits on where and for how long marine habitats can be exposed to underwater noise. Impulsive underwater noise, such as from oil and gas exploration, occurs in about 8 % of the EU’s seas: it is particularly present in large areas of the Baltic, North and Celtic Seas, and the Mediterranean area.Maritime traffic is the main source of continuous underwater noise. With 27% of its area subject to shipping, the Mediterranean Sea sees the highest shipping traffic in the EU. This is followed by the Baltic Sea (19 % of the area). Overall, only 9% of the EU’s sea area has no shipping traffic. EU Member States will now need to take these threshold values into account when they update their marine strategies and eventually take actions in their programmes of measures.

These threshold values have been developed under the Commission’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive. It requires EU Member States to develop and implement strategies to protect the marine environment, covering several aspects, such as biodiversity and several types of pollution. To respect these limits, Member States will need to implement appropriate measures in their marine strategies, for example by reducing ship-generated noise, designing methods to minimise impulsive noise by design or setting spatial restrictions for human activity, also with the support of the Regional Sea Conventions. They are based on the latest scientific advice available and were endorsed on 29 November by EU marine directors at their meeting under the trio Czech, French and Swedish Presidency of the Council.


The Marine Strategy Framework Directive provides a framework for monitoring, assessing and implementing measures to protect marine life and reducing pollution. It aims to achieve a good environmental status of the EU's marine waters and sustainably protect the resource base upon which marine-related economic and social activities depend.

The EU’s framework for marine environmental protection is one of the most comprehensive and ambitious worldwide, and agreement on this threshold shows its ability to tackle predominant pressures, including underwater noise.

The European Commission has contributed to the discussions on setting these threshold values by facilitating discussions between Member State experts in the MSFD Technical group on underwater noise, which is chaired by representatives from EU countries. The technical group will now also work on recommendations on how to use these values.

The work carried out under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive will feed ongoing work by Regional Sea Conventions to assess the state of their marine environment as well as discussions under the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to reduce the levels of underwater noise from shipping.

A threshold value for beach litter was agreed in 2020, limiting the amount of litter on EU coastlines to 20 items per 100m and work is ongoing to develop further threshold values for other marine litter such as seafloor and floating litter and on seabed protection, likely to be agreed on in 2023.

Recommendations from Technical group on underwater noise for EU threshold values for continuous noise

Recommendations from Technical group on underwater noise for EU threshold values for impulsive noise

Infographic on sources of underwater noise


Publication date
29 November 2022
Directorate-General for Environment

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