About MMOs

What is a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) and Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) Operator?

Projects requiring Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) and Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) Operators have arisen due to concerns regarding the levels of man-made noise in the ocean and how this may affect marine life, in particular, marine mammals and turtles.

The operations at sea that are causing concern are:

  • Seismic Surveys - looking for new oil and gas reserves
  • Explosives - used in the decommissioning of oil platforms and structures
  • Pile Driving for Construction – for example wind farm construction, tidal turbines and new piers
  • Drilling - for example wind farm construction, tidal turbines and new piers
  • Dredging - for the removal of sediments in harbours and waterways
  • Multibeam Echosounders - used to map seabed topography
  • Military Sonar - used to detect submarines

The Role of the MMO and PAM Operator

The role of the MMO and PAM operator is to be present during offshore operations and to act immediately to protect species of concern should they enter an exclusion zone prior to and sometimes during operations. MMOs will advise personnel onboard to delay or shutdown operations until the animals are at a safe distance and also to record behaviour and sightings at other times. Monitoring and management measures may be set out by a regulatory authority or follow industry best practice. The MMO will work with the client and contractor to ensure requirements are adhered to and provide clarification advice.

The MMO must first be able to detect marine mammals. This is done by visual and passive acoustic monitoring. Visual monitoring is conducted by using the highest platform with the best all-round vision and using simply a pair of binoculars the MMO scans the surrounding areas for animals. Visual monitoring is done in all observation work. In addition, passive acoustic monitoring may also be carried out. Marine mammals spend most of their time underwater and for those species who are very vocal and are deep divers, such as sperm whales,  acoustic monitoring can be conducted in addition to visual monitoring to increase the likelihood of detection. Acoustic monitoring also allows for the MMO to detect some animals at night. Passive Acoustic Monitoring is conducted by deploying hydrophone cables and monitoring in-coming signals on computers with specially designed acoustic software. In a bid to improve accuracy and efficacy, equipment, deployment methods and software (e.g. PAMGUARD) are in development. PAM and MMO approaches are complementary and are often used simultaneously to provide better coverage.

Professional Expectations

MMOs usually have a strong interest or background in marine biology and extensive field experience.

As a minimum, a professional MMO or PAM operator is expected to have:

  • The ability and motivation to detect and identify marine wildlife and accurately assess their range and movements
  • An understanding of the rationale behind management procedures.  
  • The ability to work offshore, often as the lone environmental representative, and work positively with the project crew.   
  • A clear understanding of the project's operation.  
  • A sound knowledge of marine wildlife behaviour and biology - specifically, acoustic sensitivities.
  • A sound knowledge of the scientific importance of precise, accurate data recording.

Monitoring is fundamental to the work and long hours of dedicated watching needed to comprise rigorous spotting, accurate range identification, assessment of behaviour and comprehensive recording of data (as determined by relevant protocols). The professional integrity of MMOs depends on these activities and knowledge being consistently applied to procedures. To ensure that the appropriate action is taken, the MMO must also have good communication skills and have established a rapport with project operators.

In addition, an MMO may be required to:

  • Provide on the spot advice regarding environmental management 
  • Attend and present at operational meetings. 
  • Contribute to the project's ecological impact assessment (EcIA) 
  • Liaise with environmental regulatory bodies, industry and NGOs. 
  • Raise environmental awareness amongst crew.

For projects in designated environmentally sensitive areas, more extensive experience and proven depth of knowledge may also be required of MMOs.

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