Environmental group the Clean Arctic Alliance is calling for measures tackling underwater noise from ships to be made mandatory as the International Maritime Organization meets to consider the issue.

A paper submitted by Canada to the IMO’s meeting of the Sub-Committee on Ship Design & Construction (SDC) from 23-27 January proposes that work to amend the rules on underwater noise, last updated in 2014, be completed.

The IMO has previously instructed the SDC to identify steps and a programme of action to prevent and reduce underwater noise.

Clean Arctic Alliance lead advisor Sian Prior said: “The voluntary nature of the IMO’s underwater noise guidelines is the biggest barrier to their implementation.

“Both the programme of action and next steps identified by the committee during this week’s meeting must include recommendations for compulsory measures.”

Updated draft regulations to be discussed at the meeting do not currently state clearly whether they will be compulsory, according to submissions by some member states.

China and the Netherlands are among those calling for the rules not to be made compulsory. China says it is “essential to clearly state in the revised guidelines that they are non-mandatory”.

Underwater noise in the ocean from shipping roughly doubles each decade, according to a recent report, making it hard for marine animals to communicate, find food and navigate, said the Clean Arctic Alliance.

The impact on whales, dolphins and fish is greater in Arctic waters, it said, affecting Inuit communities that depend on wildlife and the sea for livelihoods.

Underwater noise from ships is created by cavitation or production of vacuum bubbles by propellers.

But Japan has submitted a paper showing that noise reduction measures to change propeller design can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions due to reduced fuel efficiency.

Some observers have suggested bringing the issue within the remit of IMO emissions-cutting regulations.

Sarah Bobbe, Arctic programme manager at Ocean Conservancy, said: “Ultimately, the IMO must agree to the development of mandatory measures, such as the preparation and implementation of noise management plans for every ship, so that the overall failure to reduce underwater noise is addressed globally.”