What is an MMO?

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

Projects requiring Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs), Protected Species Observers (PSOs) 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, turtles and some fish species.

The operations at sea that are causing concern are:

Geophysical surveys such as seismic surveys looking for new oil and gas reserves or high-resolution surveys using electromagnetic sources for sub-bottom profiling.

Explosives used in the decommissioning of oil and gas platforms and structures, construction, for unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance and military testing and training.

Pile driving for construction, for example, wind farm construction, tidal turbine, new piers and oil and gas industry structures.

Military sonar used to detect submarines.

The governing body in the United Kingdom responsible for implementing mitigation measures to protect marine mammals during offshore operations within the UK continental shelf is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). Persons employed as MMOs and PAM operators in UK continental shelf waters must first undertake a MMO training course recognised by the JNCC.

In the United States MMOs are called Protected Species Observers (PSOs) and the governing bodies responsible for implementing mitigation measures to protect marine mammals and turtles during industry operations are the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Persons employed as PSOs and PAM operators in the U.S. must first undertake a PSO training course recognised by the BOEM/BSEE/NMFS.

The Role of the MMO, PSO and PAM Operator

The role of the MMO, PSO and PAM operator is to be present during industry operations and to act immediately to protect marine mammals and other protected species should they enter an exclusion zone prior to source activity or in some cases, during operations. MMOs will advise industry personnel to delay or shutdown operations until the animals are at a safe distance. The MMO or PAM operator will also be required to record all protected species detections, industry operations and accompanying environmental data.

The observer 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 animals at night. Passive Acoustic Monitoring is conducted by deploying hydrophone cables and monitoring in-coming signals on computers with specially designed acoustic software.

Qualifications required to become an MMO in the UK


To work as an MMO in the UK you will need the following certifications:

MMO Training Course

Must be approved by the JNCC.

Survival Training

Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training (BOSIET) Certificate including Helicopter Underwater Evacuation Training (HUET).

Offshore Fitness Physical Examination

OGUK Medical.

Persons likely to win contracts working as MMOs are those who have additional biological or environmental qualifications and/or have experience of working at sea. To work as an MMO in some areas of the UK where marine mammals are more abundant you will be required to have experience of working with marine mammals whether this is formally as a researcher or through voluntary work.

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