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On the water with orca D-tag research crew

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, Shipping Comments Off on On the water with orca D-tag research crew

Oregon Public Broadcasting recently sent reporter Ashley Ahearn out with the researchers that are listening in on orca activity underwater (covered here last month), and her wonderful, detailed report is now online; check it out!  It includes two videos, one showing a tagged orca’s swimming track, along with every boat in its vicinity over the several hour journey, and the other offering a “poles-eye view” of attaching the D-tag to an orca:

Judge OK’s construction of Undersea Warfare Training Range near right whale habitat

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A US District Judge has ruled against NRDC and others who had challenged the Navy’s permit to build an instrumented training range off the coast of Georgia and Florida, claiming that construction should not proceed until the Navy completes the full EIS for the training activities that will take place there.  Construction is slated to begin within a couple of years, with training commencing sometime around 2018; the range would have about 300 sensors installed on the ocean floor over an area of about 500 square miles, and would host training missions involving submarines, surface ships, and airplanes.

The Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR) would begin 50 miles offshore, while a key winter birthing and nursing ground for North Atlantic right whales extends out to 20 miles offshore.  Only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, with ship strikes being a major concern, along with the effects of any additional stress on mothers or young whales near the Navy’s operations. “We understand that’s the right whale’s critical habitat,” said Jene Nissen, the range’s program director. “We looked at the type of effects that training could have on right whales, and we are confident it will be very minimal.”  Construction will be suspended from November to April, when the whales are migrating and congregating in the birthing grounds, but the Navy has not agreed to suspend training in those months, or to comply with offshore speed limits imposed on private and commercial ships, saying that this would interfere with their ability to carry out realistic and effective training.

The groups that filed the suit in 2010 are considering an appeal; Sharon Young of the Humane Society of the United States stressed that “We certainly would never argue to undermine our national defense, but it’s also reasonable to ask the military not to jeopardize a species that is just barely hanging on.”

See more AEInews coverage of the USWTR here.

Navy receives NMFS OK for LFAS operations 2012-2017

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In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued its Record of Decision that will allow the Navy to operate its Low Frequency Active Sonar systems for the next five years.  NMFS will issue a new Letter of Authorization each year, in order to accommodate new information as needed, but the overall parameters of the permits will remain essentially the same throughout the five years.

AbleWEBWhile the Final Rule allows the Navy to operate the SURTASS-LFA sonar in most of the world’s oceans (Pacific, Indian, Atlantic Oceans and Mediterranean Sea), the Navy’s operational plans for the first year remain centered in the western Pacific, given its particular focus on tracking Chinese submarines (see previous AEI coverage of tensions with China over LFAS surveillance).  Only four missions are planned in other areas, and all these will take place in north and south of Hawaii. The Navy has four ships outfitted with the SUTASS-LFA sonar; three (USNS Victorious, Effective, and Able, seen at left, appear to be based in the Pacific, and one (USNS Impeccable) in the Atlantic; each ship could operate for up to 240 days and transmit SURTASS LFA sonar for up to 432 hours per year (the ships transmit sound roughly 7.5% of the time they are operating).

The Rule and the Letters of Authorization allow the Navy to cause temporary behavioral effects (a “Level B Harassment,” defined as animals hearing the low-frequency sonar at levels ranging from 120-180dB, possibly changing their behavior) on 94 species, with no more than 12% of any regional stock of each species being exposed to the sonar in any given year.  The Navy anticipates, based on species abundance in each of the eleven designated operational areas for the first year, that for most species, the percentage will be far lower: usually well under 1% and topping out at 3% for a handful of species in the 9 western Pacific operational areas; around Hawaii, several species will see 1-3% of the population having behavioral impacts, with a handful of species topping out at 6-7%.

Few animals are expected to be close enough to be injured, and the Navy and NMFS presume that physical harm (Level A Takes) will be avoided completely thanks to various mitigation measures, including marine mammal observers, passive acoustic monitoring, and power-downs when whales are close.  But given the uncertainties, NMFS is authorizing injurious or lethal takes of up to 31 whales and 25 seals and sea lions.

The previous five-year LFAS permits, issued in 2007, faced a court challenge based largely on the ways that the Navy and NMFS designated offshore biologically important areas (OBIA), and on the idea that nearshore exclusion zones should extend at times beyond the 12 nautical mile zone covered by those permits.  Most designated and potential Marine Protected Areas (340 of 403) are already within 12 nautical miles of coasts, so are protected from high-intensity ensonification; a more thorough examination of the rest led to the inclusion of one additional OBIA in this round of permitting, with two more being monitored for possible inclusion as more research is done in them (many were omitted because the species of concern in those areas are high- and mid-frequency vocalizers, and LFAS sounds will have more of an effect on larger whales that hear lower frequencies).  A total of 22 OBIAs are designated worldwide, some considered important year-round, and some seasonally.  Sonar sounds must be below 180db within an area extending 1km beyond the boundaries of the OBIAs (thus aiming to keep sounds under 175dB within the OBIAs); likewise, the same 180dB maximum will apply at the boundary of the 12 nautical mile coastal zone.  The Federal Register notice of the Final Rule contains many pages of comments from the NRDC, Marine Mammal Commission, and others, along with responses from NMFS.

Mediterranean fin whales displaced by oil and gas noise

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Ongoing acoustic research in the Mediterranean has confirmed earlier indications that fin whales are far more affected by oil and gas exploration noise than has long been assumed. Manuel Castellote’s most recent paper details a set of disturbing findings, here summarized by the website Science Codex:

Maritime traffic and geophysical exploration –including the search for hydrocarbons– “drastically” reduces the song effectiveness –linked to reproduction and which propagates hundreds of kilometres beneath the Sea– of the whales, which are also the group of marine mammals with the greatest acoustic sensitivity at low frequencies. “The noise generated through human activity in the oceans leads to possible chronic effects on the health of this species”, Castellote states.

After analysing 20,547 hours of recordings of the sounds emitted by the whales, the study published in Biological Conservation indicated that the whales modified the characteristics of their songs in order to try to reduce the impact of noise on their propagation. In addition the researchers recorded a massive displacement of fin whales, triggered by the noise from geophysical prospecting at a distance of 285 km from the study area. “These recurrent displacements, together with the changes in acoustic behaviour, could increase the energy expenditure and reduce the reproductive success of whales affected by the noise”, the expert indicated.

In the long-term the consequences for these mammals are clear: chronic effects which impact on their survival emerge. “Noise in the marine medium, despite being recognised as a significant pollutant, is far from being controlled and regulated within the waters of the Exclusive Economic Zone of Spain”, warns Castellote

Offsore oil development expanding in remote Arctic seas

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The Anchorage Daily News ran a  great, detailed piece on the expansion of offshore oil and gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas north and west of Alaska.  It’s well worth reading in full.  The nut of the story is that Shell Oil, which has conducted seismic surveys in the northerns seas for the past few years, is gearing up to drill their first new exploratory well in over a decade.  If they find the oil they expect to, further seismic exploration and drilling is likely to follow in these remote waters, home to many species of whales.  Bowhead whales are especially sensitive to noise, especially cow-calf pairs, and have been found to give seismic surveys a wide berth.

Oil companies have been doing extensive research into the seasonal distributions of whales (especially belugas and bowheads), and have agreed to suspend operations in late August to accommodate the Alaskan natives traditional bowhead hunting season.  Meanwhile, Chris Clark, the Bioacoustics Research Program director at Cornell says, “There are unanswered science questions.  It’s not clear what happens if a whale hears 1,000 of the explosions from air guns, or where it will go if an area is saturated with the sound. In addition, scientists are only beginning to study the effects of the sound on fish and other animals that make up the whole ecosystem.”

Go read the whole article!

Tension builds over expanded whale “takes” in new Navy sonar EIS

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The US Navy has released its initial Draft Environmental Impact Statements for the next 5-year round of permits it will seek from the National Marine Fisheries Service for its at-sea training activities, and the numbers of animals expected to be affected have skyrocketed.  This is in part thanks to the new EISs combining areas that were dealt with separately in the first round of permitting, which occurred after the NRDC challenged the lack of permits in court.  The new Hawaii-Southern California EIS not only combines these two previous separate areas, but also accounts for impact to animals in waters between Hawaii and California that were previously not considered.  In addition, the new EISs draw on more recent scientific evidence of lower impact thresholds for some species, including beaked whales, and on more advanced models that predict animal concentrations and movements.

While this expanded focus and better data is a valuable step forward, the numbers of animals expected to be injured or to have their behavior affected has increased so much that NRDC termed it “harm of staggering proportions.”  Clearly, attempts to foster more constructive dialogue between the Navy, NMFS, and NRDC during the EIS process has not led to a shared vision or lowered the heat all that much.  The Navy’s estimate of the number of animals whose behavior could be affected has jumped from 770,000 to 14 million, including 2 million cases of temporary hearing impairment, in addition to 2000 animals experiencing permanent hearing loss.  And, the Navy estimates that explosives training and testing could kill 1000 animals. 

But, Navy officials told CNN, these alarming numbers — a result of mathematical modeling — are worst-case scenarios.  “We believe … with our mitigation efforts and the Navy commitment that those injuries and mortalities will be none,” said John Van Name, U.S. Pacific Fleet senior environmental planner in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The report also indicated monitoring in 2009-2010 off Hawaii and Southern California showed 162,000 marine mammals with no evidence of distress or unusual behavior during Navy activities.  By comparison, the previous round of EISs estimated injury or death to about 100 animals in Hawaii and California during the five years from 2009-13; to date, two or three dolphins are known to have been killed by explosives testing.

Zak Smith of the NRDC responds that “I am not saying they are not well-intentioned. But I am not sure their choices make them the best environmental stewards they could be.”  In a blog post, Smith elaborates:

While the Navy’s understanding of how much harm it’s activities cause marine mammals has increased, it hasn’t taken any corresponding steps to minimize this staggering level of harm.  It’s mitigation protocol remains largely unchanged, with the Navy refusing to set aside areas of high marine mammal density where sonar should not be used.  This means sensitive breeding and foraging habitats and biologically unique areas within the training area can still be used for sonar and underwater explosives training. We know that safeguarding specific areas of sensitive habitat is the best way to lessen harm to whales and dolphins from sonar and other activities — don’t use the technology in the same areas where whale and dolphin numbers are high or during breeding seasons.  Faced with such incredible numbers and levels of harm, the Navy must do more to identify and set aside portions of its training areas (areas often the size of large states, like California) where it will not conduct training and testing.

For more on the EIS process, see the Navy’s information sites for the Hawaii-Southern California EIS and the Atlantic Fleet EIS.  Comments on both are being accepted through July 10.

Leading scientists call for reducing ocean noise

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NOAA humpback with calf copyTwo of the US’s most widely-respected ocean bioacousticians have called for a concerted research and public policy initiative to reduce ocean noise.  Christopher Clark, senior scientist and director of Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program, and Brandon Southall, former director of NOAA’s Ocean Acoustics Program, recently published an opinion piece on CNN that is well worth reading in full.  They stress the emerging scientific awareness that chronic moderate noise from shipping and oil and gas exploration is a more widespread threat to marine life than the rare injuries caused by loud sound sources like sonar.  Here are a couple of teasers:

Today, in much of the Northern Hemisphere, commercial shipping clouds the marine acoustic environment with fog banks of noise, and the near continuous pounding of seismic airguns in search of fossil fuels beneath the seafloor thunder throughout the waters. In the ocean’s very quietest moments, blue whales singing off the Grand Banks of Canada can sometimes be heard more than 1,500 miles away off the coast of Puerto Rico. But on most days, that distance is a mere 50 to 100 miles.

Whales, dolphins and seals use sounds to communicate, navigate, find food and detect predators. The rising level of cumulative noise from energy exploration, offshore development and commercial shipping is a constant disruption on their social networks. For life in today’s ocean, the basic activities that we depend on for our lives on land are being eroded by the increasing amount of human noise beneath the waves.

These stark realities are worrying. But emerging technologies for quantifying and visualizing the effects of noise pollution can help drive a paradigm shift in how we perceive, monitor, manage and mitigate human sounds in the ocean. Ocean noise is a global problem, but the U.S. should step up and lead the way.

Clark and Southall make three specific recommendations: to establish a more comprehensive network of acoustic monitoring stations in order to better understand our overall acoustic footprint in the seas; to encourage and accelerate development of noise-reduction technologies (especially to make ships quieter, and also to develop new technologies for oil and gas exploration and underwater construction that generate less noise); and a shift in federal regulations from avoiding acute injury, toward protecting ocean acoustic habitats and ecosystems.

Oil drilling begins in Cook Inlet, near beluga critical habitat

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Beluga noaa

A drilling rig is up and running in Cook Inlet, along the southern Alaska coast.  The rig, which will remain in the Inlet for 8 or more years, drilling numerous wells during the short summer seasons, expects to complete this first oil and gas well by the end of October, well before ice develops.  Local environmental groups pressed the Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA to not allow the rig into the inlet, citing concerns that oil and gas development activity will negatively impact a recently-designated 3000-square mile critical habitat for the critically endangered local beluga whale population.  In addition to possible impacts of a spill, noise from drilling in a central concern.  The permits allowing drilling require the company to maintain beluga observation crews, and to reduce the speed (and thus noise) of the drill when belugas are nearby, and shut down operations if they come very close.

Chabitat cibelugas1209 sm

Cook Inlet is over a hundred miles long, with Anchorage at its inner end; this is also the section of the Inlet that is now designated as critical habitat.  The first drilling operation is in the central part of the critical habitat, between Kenai and Tyonek on the map below.For more on the situation, see the two links above, which go to fairly detailed articles in the local media, and see these two previous AEI posts about the Cook Inlet belugas.

2nd year of behavioral response study underway off California

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For the second of a planned five summers, a team of researchers is spending a couple weeks in waters off southern California, attaching suction-cup acoustic tags to whales, then playing sounds underwater to see how they respond to different sounds and intensities. Another two weeks of field work will occur in late September. As Brandon Southall notes on his SEAblog, which provides excellent coverage of the trip, the team is “interested in testing the differences in responses of marine mammals in the various kinds of habitats in which they live and are exposed to human sounds.” After several years of study, the research is moving beyond simply getting one or two examples of any given species, toward the development of a wide array of examples of each species, in different circumstances (at least for the easier-to-tag species). The study is known as a Behavioral Response Study (BRS), which used to be called Controlled Exposure Experiments (CEE), with the CEE term still in use as the name of each individual playback to a tagged animal. This year’s southern California version goes by the name of SOCAL-11. The acoustic tags used in the study allow researchers to record the actual sounds heard by the animals (including of course their own foraging and communication vocalizations), while also tracking their swimming speed and dive patterns.

It’s always easier to find and approach the large whales, such as blue and fin whales, so the team tends to focus on these species when waves are higher; in light seas, they are largely seeking the harder-to-locate, and much harder to approach beaked whales, as well as Risso’s dolphins. Here’s a taste of what you’ll find if you follow the study on the SEAblog (the picture above is the animal he’s so enthused about):

Rissos dolphins are among our focal species for SOCAL-11 experiments.  We conducted one CEE on this species last year in SOCAL-10 and have been hoping for more this year.  This species has also proven somewhat difficult to tag in the past and our tags on last year were for just a few hours, so to get a nine hour deployment spanning several different behavioral modes was pretty exciting.  The tag came off late into the evening, but quite close to our anchorage and we made a beautiful late night ride in very calm seas and a red-yellow moon out to safely retrieve it.

In addition to increasing the data set of carefully measured behavioral responses to sound, the researchers are testing two leading-edge technologies: a next-generation acoustic tag, and a towed hydrophone system deployed from a sailboat that’s being used to try to find animals for possible tagging by hearing them from afar.  Plus, associated research is underway, including a study of the prey and oceanographic conditions around tagged animals, which aims to learn something about how the ocean conditions relate to where the prey is, and thus where the whales are, as well as to see whether behavior in response to sound is different when prey is present or not.

You can learn more about the SOCAL BRS study, including powerpoints describing last year’s findings, at the SOCAL-BRS web page.  Or, get more current updates by following the study on the SEAblog, or on the SOCAL-11 Facebook page (which includes some videos):!/pages/Behavioral-Response-Studies-of-Marine-Mammals/153316228012219



Getting the poop on whales being stressed by ocean noise

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A very cool research program is underway in the Bahamas this summer.  In an attempt to understand whether exposure to ocean noise sources creates stress in whales, a team from the New England Aquarium is collecting fecal matter for stress hormone testing (the photo at left shows Roz Rolland surfacing after a successful collection dive).  Increased stress can lead to many secondary issues for any animal, including health impacts and reduced reproductive success. A series of blog posts from their two weeks on site is a fun read.  The work is continuing in the Bahamas, though this team has headed home.

Here also is an MSNBC article on the research.

Feds to assess Gulf seismic surveys for MMPA compliance

Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys 1 Comment »

Ongoing pressure from environmental groups has spurred the National Marine Fisheries Service to take a closer look at the effects of seismic surveys on whales in the Gulf of Mexico.  The Obama administration has announced that NMFS will prepare a Letter of Authorization, which will look more closely at the question of whether current seismic survey practices comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Up until now, Gulf oil exploration has only been monitored for effects on endangered species.

Meanwhile, the Department of Interior and a coalition of environmental groups are engaged in settlement talk in a separate lawsuit filed earlier this year, which challenged the first new exploration permits issued for the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon accident.

These legal challenges resemble the successful challenges to Navy sonar training exercises, which also called on the government to do more complete environmental impact studies of practices which were widespread and had been going on with minimal oversight for decades.  While the Navy did complete the EIS’s, it’s worth noting that they have not led to major changes in how sonar training takes place; environmental assessments often lead to determinations of “negligible impacts” on wildlife, and it’s common that the most protective alternatives considered in an EIS or EA process is not the one chosen as the final outcome.   Read the rest of this entry »

Key step toward identifying key beaked whale habitat, avoiding sonar exposure?

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A study just published is a tentative first step toward knowing where beaked whales may be foraging, and so perhaps avoiding exposing them to mid-frequency active sonar without having to see or hear them first.

The study, briefly described in this press release, found that beaked whales were more numerous in an area of their known habitat where salinity and temperature conditions increased the abundance of their prey.  Yup, that’s right:: they found that beaked whales congregate in areas where there are more fish they like to eat!!  Ain’t science great?

Seriously, though, such studies are important to ocean planners, as they provide the necessary causal data that can later (once the results are replicated elsewhere) be used to craft operational measures meant to protect beaked whales from harm.  These whales, which surface for only a few minutes at a time between 90-minute foraging dives, are notoriously hard to see, and not much easier to listen for, making it difficult to be sure whether they are nearby before a Navy ship begins sonar exercises.  The Navy has been reluctant to set aside potential habitat as “no-go” zones for their training, since even in possible habitat, there is no way to really know that animals are present.  Studies such as this one are small steps along the way toward getting solid enough data to know, more specifically, where whales may be more likely to congregate. Previous studies on harbor porpoises and bottlenose dolphins have shown how modeling habitat can be a powerful tool to inform spatially adaptive management of ocean predators.

Humpback whales share seasonal “hit songs”

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A ten-year study in the western Pacific has documented the ways that new humpback whale songs move through several distinct populations over the course of a breeding season. “Our findings reveal cultural change on a vast scale,” said Ellen Garland, a graduate student at The University of Queensland. Multiple songs moved like “cultural ripples from one population to another, causing all males to change their song to a new version.” This is the first time that such broad-scale and population-wide cultural exchange has been documented in any species other than humans, she added. (Ed. note: researchers have also suggested that cultural patterns are passed among sperm whale populations)

Once a new song emerges, all the males seem to rapidly change their tune. Those songs generally rise to the “top of the chart” in the course of one breeding season and typically take over by the end of it. “We think this male quest for song novelty is in the hope of being that little bit different and perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex,” she said. “This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform.”

More, including whale song audio, here.

Related story: Acoustic recorders reveal new humpback breeding areas in central Pacific.

NOAA increases whale-watching distance for orcas

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Two years after proposing changes in whale-watching rules  in Puget Sound to protect endangered orca populations, NOAA has finalized its new standards.  Boats will need to stay twice as far from the whales (200 yards), and a half-mile wide “no-go” zone has been established along the entire west coast of San Juan Island, an important feeding zone.

For detailed coverage of the new plans, see these earlier AEInews posts.

UPDATE, 4/15: Canadian regulations lag those on the US side of the border; a recent study found that an average of about 20 boats surround orcas in summer months in one popular whale-watching area.  See this recent article that summarizes a set of proposed regulations developed by the University of Victoria (BC) Environmental Law Clinic, including 500 meter approach limits, 30 minute time limits, and weekly “days of rest” with no whale watching boats in the water.

First-ever lawsuit challenges Gulf of Mexico oil, gas development

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For the first time, decades of oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico is being challenged in court, on the grounds that the noise of seismic surveys used to pinpoint oil reservoirs has a negative impact on the region’s endangered sperm whales.  A consortium of environmental groups, including the NRDC, CBD, and Sierra Club filed a formal notice of intent to sue, because 10 new oil exploration and development project have been approved in recent months without obtaining permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. “Seismic surveys have a vast environmental footprint, disrupting feeding and breeding of wildlife over great distances,” said Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst at NRDC. “It is intolerable to think that the same species threatened by the Gulf spill will have to contend with the industry’s constant pounding, without any serious attempt to mitigate the harm.”

This legal challenge is similar to those mounted against Navy mid-frequency active sonar training, in that they are designed to assure that the behavioral impacts of seismic survey noise are considered, and that Incidental Harassment Authorizations are issued, with conditions meant to avoid any injury of animals, and minimize behavioral changes. The MMPA and ESA clearly require careful assessment and permitting of any activity that may negatively affect marine mammals or endangered species.

What is unclear, though, is how (if at all) oil and gas exploration activities might change after going through these proper legal challenges.  The US Navy now prepares full Environmental Impact Statements for all of its active sonar training areas, and receive IHAs from NOAA, but this legal compliance has not reduced their training activities or succeeded in putting any biologically rich areas off limits–in effect, NOAA has issued the permits after long official assessments that the activities have no significant impacts.  LIkewise, the oil and gas industry does have procedures in place to reduce sound output when animals are (very) close, and research into the behavioral effects of noise exposure at greater distances (lower sound levels) is ambiguous, though concerning.  See this earlier post about AEI’s work in this area, assessing research about behavioral impacts of moderate noise, including seismic.

The rhetoric from the litigants is surprisingly personal, implying that Gulf of Mexico exploration activity is being ramped up by this administration.  “Under Salazar’s watch, the Department of the Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice zone where laws are disregarded and wildlife protection takes a backseat to oil-company profits,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.  (See press release) What is unstated, and may in fact be more to the point, is that the Gulf has been a sacrifice zone for decades.  The fact is that these animal populations in this truly industrialized sea have been living with seismic exploration, drilling, and lots of ship traffic for many many years; some populations, including sperm whales, appear stable. While some may suggest this reinforces NOAA’s current stance that the activities do not cause any significant impact on wildlife, and others (including AEI) say it’s clearly long past time to consider the cumulative and long-term impacts of this activity on marine life, the villain is not Ken Salazar.  It’s our continuing addiction to oil, pushing us to search in ever deeper and more hazardous waters to fill our boundless needs.

Great SciAmer blog post on animals adapting to human noise

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Jump on over to Scientific American to read this great overview of the many different ways that animals are using to adapt to increasing human noise in their habitats. The author is an NYU science reporting student, and she promises a new sound blog soon on Scienceline….

Can you hear me now? Animals all over the world are finding interesting ways to get around the human din

Puget Sound orca population dwindles as action on boat noise lags

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Seven years after the Southern resident killer whale population in Puget Sound was declared endangered, US government regulators appear poised to finally enact new regulations to protect orcas from boat noise in key foraging areas. In 2009, NOAA proposed increasing the minimum buffer that boats must give orcas, from 100 yards to 200 yards, and creating a half-mile “no go” zone along the entire west side of San Juan Island, where orcas gather to feed.  After extending the comment period into early 2010, finally – a year later – NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has formally completed its analysis process; now, the Department of Commerce and Office of Management and Budget must OK the plan before the new rules go into effect, hopefully before this summer’s whalewatching season.

Reducing boat noise is a key piece of the puzzle for orca health.  Several recent research projects have identified impacts of boat noise, including reducing foraging time and interfering with communication.  The primary direct cause of orca decline is malnutrition as salmon runs decline; for this reason, it’s crucial that orcas are not impeded by boat noise as they seek out the fewer salmon that remain.

Seattle’s Q13 Fox News has covered the story well in recent months, including a recent update, along with a three part series that ran in November 2010 (all four stories have video components).

On the Canadian side of the border, things are moving even more slowly.  In December, a Canadian court ruled that the Canadian government’s approach, which uses voluntary guidelines, is not sufficient in dealing with an endangered species.  But Canadian officials have appealed that ruling, and it appears that nothing will change for the foreseeable future.

“It’s another season where we’re allowing more stress to be put on these animals.  You have to start asking how much more they can take?  If you ask anyone, a politician anybody about the Orca they would say they’re wonderful and beautiful and magnificent.  Why is it we can’t turn that into action?” asks Christine Wilhelmson of the Georgia Strait Alliance.

Follow this link for all previous AEI News coverage of orca issues.

Listening for whales near Deepwater Horizon site

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A research team that has been recording whale calls for the past nine years in the Gulf of Mexico has deployed six pop-up recorders in the same area, in hopes of hearing how the local whales are doing in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

This blog post from Greenpeace summarizes the past and current research in areas 9 and 23 miles from the site of the accident.  The post notes the lack of recent whale sitings in the area (though one was seen at a site 63 miles away).  I’m not sure what a lack of whales at sites close to the explosion and spill would prove or imply: while the Gulf sperm whales are a resident population, they do range over a region, rather than a neighborhood, and it would be rather surprising if they had lingered near the site of both oil and massive amounts of ship traffic over the past few months.  Still, it’s great that there is a baseline of acoustic data for this area, and we’ll certainly look forward to results from this and future years’ studies there.

New recorder network will listen in on Gulf of Mexico ships, whales, seismic surveys

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Using the same recording units that have provided a rich stream of new data on the effects of shipping noise on whale communication off Boston, Chris Clark of Cornell is spearheading a new project to study the acoustic ecology of the Gulf of Mexico.  According to a press release from Cornell:

“The team will anchor 22 marine autonomous recording units (MARUs) to the sea floor in an arc stretching from Texas to western Florida, along the edge of the continental shelf. These units will record underwater sounds for three months before they receive a signal to let go of their tethers and pop to the surface for retrieval. After analyzing the data, the team will deliver a report to NOAA and other agencies involved in the oil leak response. The MARUs will listen for endangered sperm whales and a small population of Bryde’s (BRU-des) whales. They will also pick up sounds of fish and ship traffic. Some devices will be placed in areas apparently unaffected by the oil to collect “control” site information; others will be close to the gushing well. The goal is to document the state of the sounds in the ecosystem over an extended period of time and compare them with known information of the oil spill.

Researchers deploy recording units (Photo: Danielle Cholewiak, BRP)

Researchers deploy recording units (Photo: Danielle Cholewiak, BRP)

“This will be the first large-scale, long-term, acoustic monitoring survey in the Gulf of Mexico,” Clark said. “We can provide one more layer of understanding about this ecosystem, using sound to measure animal occurrences, distributions and communication, as well as background noise levels from shipping and weather, and perhaps visualize how these features are being influenced by the oil. The whales are like oversized canaries in the coal mine — they reflect the health of the environment they live in.”

Wave power nearly ready in Oregon: summer test of whale aversion sound system

News, Ocean Comments Off on Wave power nearly ready in Oregon: summer test of whale aversion sound system

One of the more promising green energy technologies is wave power: off every coastline, near urban centers, a steady surge of waves holds the promise of round-the-clock power generation.  As ever, though, there are possible environmental impacts; one of the main ones for wave energy is the possibility of collisions with migrating whales.  Large baleen whales (gray, humpback, fin, blue) don’t use echolocation to forage, so are unlikely to notice offshore installations from a distance.  They are, however, careful listeners, and so Oregon State University researcher Bruce Mate is preparing to test a noise-making system that he hopes will hit the Goldilocks spot for migrating Gray whales: loud and un-natural enough to get there attention, but not so loud that it will cause widespread impacts.

“We do not even expect gray whales to react to the sound unless they are within 500 to 750 meters of the mooring location,” Mate said. “We’re not talking about much sound here.”  Mate said the acoustic device would emit one-eighth of one watt, which they hope will make the whales alter their paths about 500 meters from the noise. The system will be tested this fall, during the migration of single male Gray whales, and be suspended before mother-calf pairs begin their transit of the Oregon coast.

Ocean Power Technologies mockup

Ocean Power Technologies mockup

Ocean Power Technologies aims to deploy 12 wave power units 2.5 miles off Reedsport, Oregon, by 2012.  While whales may adapt fine to the new structures, the risk of a collision is considered to be something that could set back offshore renewable energy development for years.  The current research could inform future protective measures, should regulators or industry decide that they are necessary.

For more, see this OSU press release, this good overview article in Forbes, and this post on the Smart Planet blog.

Scientists to place 76 listening devices in Moray Firth to assess impacts of oil/gas and wind developments on wildlife

Science, Seismic Surveys, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

An impressive array of 76 acoustic monitoring buoys is planned to be deployed in Scotland’s Moray Firth this summer, to listen in on local populations of dolphins, porpoises, whales, and seals.  Scientists from Aberdeen University will place the recording devices up to 70 miles offshore, expanding on work carried out last summer on a smaller scale.  Dr. Paul Thompson, one of the lead researchers, explains: “This will help us get a better understanding of the distribution of particular species. We will be looking at the impact primarily of oil and gas exploration, but also the development of wind farms. During construction phase of these developments, it can be quite noisy and affect marine mammals. It will allow us to get a better understanding of how they use different parts of the Moray Firth and to understand what parts are most important” to each species.  Read more at The Scotsman.

Navy enviro mag features beaked whale research, with a slant

Ocean, Science, Sonar Comments Off on Navy enviro mag features beaked whale research, with a slant

The Spring 2010 issue of Currents, the quarterly magazine published by N45, the Navy’s environmental readiness division, features a long article on recent research by Ted Cranford of San Diego State University, which is revealing new details about the anatomy of beaked whales.  Cranford has developed an innovative technique to use x-ray CAT scanners designed to scan rocket motors, and with the data garnered there, is working with an expert in Finite Element Modeling (FEM) to model the ways that sound moves through and around the jaws of beaked whales before reaching their ears.

The results are not all that surprising, in a big-picture way: indications are that the whales’ auditory system filters sounds so that frequencies used in communication and echolocation are accentuated, with other frequencies dampened.  The frequencies used by mid-frequency active sonar, which are near the low end of beaked whales’ auditory range, are filtered by the sound transmission path, so that they impinge on the ear at levels 6dB or more lower than they arrived at the whale’s jaw.

The article doesn’t specify the sound levels used in the tests, to help us compare these results to what animals experience at sea. However, the captions and text repeatedly frame the results to mean that mid-frequency sonar is “largely filtered out before reaching the ear.”  The implication that a 6dB, or even greater, dampening largely removes the signal seems quite misleading; rather, only near the very faintest received levels that would be heard will the dampening render them inaudible.  It’s unsurprising that these frequencies are not of inherent interest to the whales, and it’s reassuring that their anatomy may help protect them from direct physiological damage by such sounds.  But clear behavioral responses to mid-frequency active sonar signals tell us that they clearly hear them, and respond more dramatically than most others to these sounds.  Perhaps these test results could also suggest that beaked whales are especially sensitive to sound in general, or to these sounds at the low end of their audible frequency range; for example, harbor porpoises are well-known to react to quieter sounds than many other species, and recent research has shown that they experience temporary hearing loss (TTS) at lower levels as well.  We may be simply learning that when beaked whales are exposed to, say, 160dB sonar signals, their bodies reduce the sound levels to 150dB by the time it reaches their ear–but they still react, even to this reduced sound.

While the new research is fascinating in its own right (and will be even more compelling if ongoing current research validates the modeling being used), it seems that the Navy needs to be careful in how they present the implications.  To imply that beaked whales are “largely filtering out” sonar sounds is no more helpful in fostering informed public and scientific dialogue than the perception that mid-frequency sonar is a “death-ray” for whales.

Currents is well worth following.  Each issue has a column by the Director or Assistant Director of N45, and about twice a year they run extensive features on various ocean noise topics:
Currents main web site
Spring 2010 feature on Ted Cranford’s research
Winter 2010 feature on Dave Moretti and the Navy’s Marine Mammal Monitoring program, including various tagging programs (Dave raised the “death ray” perception in his interview)
Winter 2009 feature on the Navy’s Marine Mammal Science program

New maps track ships drowning out whale communication

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean Comments Off on New maps track ships drowning out whale communication

Ongoing research in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is providing ever more compelling visualizations of shipping noise and the much quieter calls of whales in the area. Scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NMFS, and Cornell have deployed networks of sound recorders, which allow them to track individual whales and ships and see how their sounds interact.  The Sanctuary, which contains the shipping lanes into Boston harbor, is one of the more urbanized ocean environments to be closely studied thus far.  Here, we see four panels; the top left is wind noise, bottom left is right whales, and the right hand ones show that two ships completely drown out the whales as they pass through the area. “Every day, five to six large ships move into and out of Boston, and their acoustic footprint can last for hours.” says Cornell’s Chris Clark. “As a result, the Right whales trying to make a living off Boston are losing about 80 percent of their opportunities to keep in contact every day, day after day, month after month, year after year.”

From; click to read source article

From; click to read source article

“Right whales are long-lived animals. When they were kids and teenagers, their world was normal,” Clark says. “Acoustic habitat loss is a stressor and there are multiple stressors on a species.” His team has found that the whales often no longer bother answering calls from their peers. In this world of constant noise, they wouldn’t be heard anyway. “Their social network is constantly ripped apart,” says Clark. “In one area, noise levels are now 105 decibel where they should be 75.” Other researchers from the Right Whale Consortium found that the animals show dramatic loss in vital body fat: In some individuals, the blubber layer is thinner than normal, hinting at the possibility that they no longer find enough food due to the noise.

At conferences over the past year, project scientists have shared compelling animated sequences showing similar patterns; so far, only still images are available online. UPDATE! A recent article on this work in the journal Science (from which the Clark quotes above were drawn) has a link to a good video (note: the video has minimal interpretation. I find the upper left graph most compelling: it shows the whale call (in blue), loud near the whale and fainter as the cone spreads out; the red disc is the noise from the ship, gradually getting louder than the whale calls, until it drowns out the whale everywhere except very nearby). For more on this important research, see this recent article which contains two stills from a different animation, this section of the Stellwagen website on the passive acoustic monitoring program,  this movie which visualizes the movements and sounds of two nearby and some more distant humpback whales, and hear this local radio piece on the Stellwagen research.

MEAM newsletter provides great status report on Marine Spatial Planning around the world

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Sonar, Wind turbines Comments Off on MEAM newsletter provides great status report on Marine Spatial Planning around the world

The most recent issue of the Marine Ecosystem and Management newsletter (download here) has several features that offer a good sense of current efforts to adopt Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) and its related management principle, Ecosystem Based Management (ESB).  The lead article centers on reports from Massachusetts, Norway, and Germany, each oriented toward the relationship between MSP and ESB.  Shorter pieces include interrviews on related topics and direct readers to recent management plans, proposals, and reports by the US Federal Government, the State of Massachusetts, and Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii.  For more on MEAM programs and publications, see the MEAM website.

NRDC, allies take Navy to court over training range near right whale habitat

News, Ocean, Science, Sonar 3 Comments »

The new Navy Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), being planned for off the coast of northern Florida, has hit a roadblock that’s been fairly visible since the location was announced last July: environmental groups are challenging the permitting process that allows construction to commence before the Navy completes its environmental assessment of future operations there.  The USWTR will encompass 500 square miles, beginning 50 miles offshore, while a key winter birthing and nursing ground for North Atlantic right whales extends out to 20 miles offshore.

UPDATE, 10/2013: Court sides with Navy, USWTR plans continue forward

While the Navy released its final EIS in July (see AEI summary), including its proposed operational and mitigation measures to protect whales, it became clear soon after that the Navy was only applying for permits from NOAA related to construction activities; the Navy said it would apply for permits to allow actual Navy training activities in 2012 or 2013, in advance of planned opening of the range in 2014. (Update, 2015: the USWTR website now estimates that operations will commence in 2019; no operations permits filed yet.) The EIS indicates that the range will be heavily used:  up to 480 anti-submarine mid-frequency active sonar exercises per year, including 100 ship-based events (2/week on average, lasting 3-4 hours each).

From the start, NRDC and other environmental groups questioned the Navy’s legal standing to commit to $100 million in construction costs before receiving National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) permits that would approve their plans for operations, including safety measures to protect marine life.  The new lawsuit alleges Read the rest of this entry »