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Whale earwax ties 150 years of stress changes to whaling, wars, and climate

Ocean, Science No Comments »

A fascinating new study sheds light on changing stress levels in baleen whales over the course of the past 150 years.  Earwax from fin, humpback, and blue whales accumulates over their lifetimes, a bit like tree rings, and the researchers were able to track cortisol levels by sampling the layers in earwax plugs from museum collections.  This study averaged the results from 20 whales; the researchers are now beginning their analysis of over a hundred new samples.

The takeaway is pretty striking: stress levels track well with increasing whaling activity through the early and mid 20th century (blue line below), and dropped dramatically when commercial whaling ended.  In the midst of that span, a lull in whaling was countered by military actions durring WWII, which seems associated with a smaller spike in stress.  And while stress remained low from the 70s through the 90s, it appears to be rising again in the past couple of decades; the researchers suggest that rising sea temperatures are the most closely associated factor in this recent spike, with other anthropogenic factors including shipping noise also likely contributing.

A couple of caveats are in order. Most importantly, this study had only 6 earwax samples that extended past the year 2000, so recent trends may be distorted by the small sample size; the spike in 1995-2000 represents just four whales, and the final plot points include two fin whales that lived only a couple of years (interestingly, their stress loads were low, so the recent dip may be particularly uncertain).

Not surprisingly, there were notable differences between species and a marked variability over the course of individual whales’ lives that did not track with global trends in nearly so striking a way.  Here is a particular whale that suggests increased stress in particular years (including a possible WWII encounter), but which appears less affected by the global whaling trends, perhaps reflecting where it lived:

All this is really quite exciting, though.  We can look forward to much more robust results as this sort of analysis is expanded to more whales, and to other hormonal markers. It’s also possible that as samples from whales that died more recently are included, regional trends related to increased shipping noise may begin to become apparent.  At the same time, this is a good reminder that as much as we like to focus on acoustic factors, the stressors affecting modern whale populations are many, with climate and prey availability being especially pronounced.

 

Cue the lawyers: NOAA approves five Atlantic seismic surveys

Seismic Surveys No Comments »

NOAA has issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations to five oil and gas exploration companies, each of which plans to engage in several weeks to several months worth of surveys off the US Atlantic coast during the one-year permit period, which extends through 2019.  When the Trump administration initially announced its rollback of the Obama-era decision to forego new exploration, it seemed that the lack of Atlantic leasing opportunities in the 2017-2022 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program would undermine the economic incentives to invest in new surveys (and AEI wrote a detailed “don’t worry too much” post).  But the Trump team threw out years of agency staff and scientist work and is now rewriting the OCS leasing program three years early: their new Draft 2019-2024 plan opens up six lease areas in the Atlantic in 2020, 2022, and 2024; new surveys will guide both the government and oil companies as they identify which areas are ripe for development.

However, it is inevitable that court challenges from environmental groups and perhaps coastal states will slow the process down or derail it completely.  So stay tuned….

The surveys being proposed are broad-brush preliminary overviews of the region, and so involve somewhat less intense sound-blasting than detailed site-specific surveys; most of the tracklines are 20-30km apart, and some 100-200km apart, though one survey narrows the spacing to 6km in the core area (see center, below).  But they cover vast areas of the sea, on and beyond the continental shelf.  Here are  sample maps showing the survey lines being proposed:

Most of the activity is well offshore, which helps minimize impacts; from November through April they are pushed a full 90km offshore to keep high levels of noise out of North Atlantic Right whale winter breeding and nursing areas; several other smaller areas are off limits either year-round or seasonally.

Behavioral impact estimates are surprisingly low (and so perhaps a target of legal challenge): under a dozen right, sei, and blue whales, and a few thousand behavioral changes among far more numerous fin and sperm whales; sea turtles are expected to take the biggest hit, especially in far offshore sargassum habitat, with tens of thousands being disrupted and thousands experiencing temporary hearing reductions.

All this region-wide noisemaking, of course, in service of the madness that is continued oil and gas development in the face of a global climate imperative to leave untapped reserves in the ground.  The US is already the world leader in oil and gas production and we have thousands of existing leases that have yet to be developed; the last thing we need is more straws in the ground—especially in deep offshore waters. I have to admit, though, that I am no longer as sanguine about the Trumpistas’ offshore crusade as I was when these plans were first floated a year ago.

UPDATE, 12/14: For those of you wanting to raise your voice about this, you can count on our compatriots at Ocean Conservation Research to keep you updated on the field of play for public discourse.

Court adds new hurdles for BC oil sands pipeline as separate lawsuit calls for emergency orca protections

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Over the past decade, plans for a big expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia have garnered pushback from ocean advocates. In late 2016, the plan gained its final approval from the Canadian government (see AEI coverage), but in late August, a Federal Appeals Court overturned that approval, citing the government’s failure to assess the effects of increased shipping on the dwindling orca population and shortcomings in consultations with First Nations.

Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, called the ruling “a major win with impacts that will be felt across the country….Our wild salmon and the orcas that they support are critically under threat. The increased tanker traffic that the … project proposes is entirely unacceptable.”

However, Jonathan Wilkinson, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, remains confident that the court’s concerns can be addressed.  While acknowledging that the government is still being guided by the courts about what level of consultation with First Nations is required, he was confident that the concerns about orca populations have been addressed by the government’s “very robust” Whales Action Plan, which includes limits on the chinook salmon fishery, ship-slowing measures, and moving shipping lanes somewhat further away from key orca feeding areas, saying that “the work the court was looking for has already been done.”

Wilkinson stresses that the increased tanker traffic—350 tankers per year, or 700 transits—is a modest addition to the 3500 other large vessels (container ships and ferries) that ply the waters of this region; he notes that “If we are going to recover the southern resident killer whale, we need to take action that will mitigate noise from all of those sources, not simply six or seven tankers coming out of the terminal every week.”

Still, “they have a lot of work to do now to see if there are ways to lessen or avoid those impacts under the Species at Risk Act,” said Misty Macduffee, a biologist with the Rainforest Conservation Foundation. “The Salish Sea is already too noisy for killer whales, so any traffic you add to it makes a bad situation worse.”

Given the precarious state of the local resident population, you can be sure that government regulators will have their feet held to the fire as this longtime controversy continues.  The government has not yet announced whether it will appeal the recent ruling to the Supreme Court, or send the concerns back to the National Energy Board to address the shortcomings highlighted by the Appeals Court.

Indeed, less than a week after the Appeals Court decision, and on the very same day, the government proposed an expansion of orca critical habitat, while a consortium of environmental groups filed suit in an attempt to force the government to issue emergency protections in the face of the orcas’ ongoing population declines.

“Emergency orders are specifically designed for circumstances like this, when you have a species that needs more than delayed plans and half-measures to survive and recover,” Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, said in a written statement. Last year, the previous

“I have to say, personally, I was very disappointed in the action that was taken by the environmental organizations,” said Wilkinson, the fisheries and ocean minister.“They were the ones who initially asked to convene the multi-stakeholder forum. They effectively attended one meeting and then decided that they would pursue a more adversarial approach rather than a collaborative approach.”

Wilhelmson said the groups were prepared to work with government. “But the process that they set up was all about talking, not about action,” she said. “It was clear that this was just another process that was going to take months and months and months — and the orcas don’t have that.”

 

Slowdowns could reduce noise impacts of increased Arctic shipping

Animal Communication, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Several recent studies highlight the heightened risks of increased Arctic shipping, along with some opportunities to minimize the effects of shipping noise on specific Arctic species and populations.

With the retreat of sea ice, both the Northwest Passage (along Canada’s northern coast) and the Northern Sea Route (along Russia’s northern coast) are seeing increases in commercial and fishing vessel traffic. While the first cruise ship crossed the Northwest Passage in 2016, Russia’s Northern Sea Route is the current center of activity, with both container ships and LNG (natural gas) tankers making pioneering transits without icebreakers over the past two summers.  Total ship numbers are still modest, as it’s not yet cheaper than the longer route through the Suez canal, but these test runs are explicitly intended to chart the course for rapid increases in the coming years; Russia aims to ship 80 million tons of cargo by 2024, up from 10 million tons in 2017 and 2018, and China is moving rapidly to implement a “Polar Silk Road” initiative to encourage companies to build the infrastructure necessary to ramp up this shortcut to European markets.

Two recent studies address key questions about the biological impact of increased shipping on Arctic ecosystems.  The first, from researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, examined the ranges of 80 localized subpopulations of seven key Arctic species, and found that just over half (42) of these would hear increased shipping noise.  Of these, some species are more vulnerable than others:

“Narwhals have all the traits that make them vulnerable to vessel disturbances — they stick to really specific areas, they’re pretty inflexible in where they spend the summer, they live in only about a quarter of the Arctic, and they’re smack dab in the middle of shipping routes,” said co-author Kristin Laidre, a polar scientist at UW Applied Physics Laboratory’s Polar Science Center. “They also rely on sound, and are notoriously skittish and sensitive to any kind of disturbance.”

In addition to narwhals, beluga and bowhead whales and some subpopulations of walrus are likely to be vulnerable to increased noise; ringed and bearded seals, as well as polar bears, will be less vulnerable, thanks to widespread populations and spending much of the summer on land rather than in the water.  In addition, the researchers stressed that the Bering Strait is a key chokepoint for both Arctic sea routes, as well as being a crucial migratory corridor.

“I think we can learn a lot from areas that have already been thinking about these kinds of conflicts between ships and marine mammal populations — for example the North Atlantic right whale, or fin and blue whales around California,” Laidre said. “We could aim to develop some mitigation strategies in the Arctic that help ships avoid key habitats, adjust their timing taking into account the migration of animals, make efforts to minimize sound disturbance, or in general help ships detect and deviate from animals.”

A second study took a different tack, looking at whether speed reductions (as implemented in some areas around busy ports) would reduce the noise impacts.  They used an increasingly common metric, “listening space,” the area or volume of water within which an animal can hear its brethren, its prey, or other biologically important sounds. The researchers modeled ship noise in several key chokepoints on the Northwest Passage, calculating the distance over which vessels sounds would impact the listening space for several species, and at how much the effect could be moderated if the ships were slowed in key areas.  And indeed, the effects were significant:

Under quiet conditions, beluga whales experienced a 50 percent listening space loss when they were 7 to 14 kilometers (4.3 to 8.7 miles) away from a ship traveling at 25 knots. When ships slowed to 15 knots, whales could get as close as 2 to 4 kilometers before they experienced the same loss of listening space.

In other words, when a ship was going faster, the area over which it cut a beluga’s listening space in half might be more than three times larger. This difference is important because there are many places where whales cannot distance themselves from ships in the Arctic (in the narrow Prince of Wales Strait, animals can maintain a maximum distance of just 7 to 10 kilometers).

As always, the results are not all as simple as that; the researchers found that for some species, the effects are less in certain weather conditions or for different kinds of ships (container vs. cruise), and that in some situations, the effects can actually cover a larger area when ambient noise is high (as it increasingly is with loss of ice cover). And, as always with vessel-slowing programs, planners must consider the tradeoffs between moderating the noise level and increasing the time during which ships are audible during slower passages.

With the inevitable increase in Arctic shipping, it will be crucial for both governmental and commercial players take steps to minimize the acoustic impacts in these remote waters, among the last areas in the seas where human noise intrusions have been relatively modest.

Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s splashy offshore oil talk

Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

An AEI big-picture commentary

Once again, a Presidential announcement about offshore oil development has sent the media and environmental advocates into a spasm of headlines and press releases that presumes the words being uttered in DC actually reflect on-the-ground (or in this case, under-the-waves) reality. In late 2016, there was effusive praise for an effectively symbolic Obama decision to not offer leases in Alaskan and Atlantic waters (AEI’s “much ado about not much” post questioned the prevailing celebratory outburst). Fourteen months later, we’ve got a mirror-image outcry over Trump’s base-pumping proclamation about “unleashing America’s offshore oil and gas potential” through a National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for the years 2019-2024.

This one sure does sound bad: opening up 90 percent of our continental shelf, with 47 lease areas including regions like New England and the Pacific Northwest that haven’t even had vague proposals for decades. Despite the boom in American oil and natural gas production that occurred during the Obama years, with much of the increased production being exported, the new administration is intent on exploiting as-yet untapped deposits, ignoring the climate imperative to leave as much oil in the ground as we can. Vincent DeVito, a Counselor for Energy Policy at the Department of Interior, practically twirls his mustache with this comment from the official DOI press release:

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance. This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”

Sure, that’s just the ticket; these eager beavers can’t wait to dominate a fading industry—a decade from now, since that’s how long it takes to get offshore wells on line.

And so begins a two-year planning process that will needlessly and expensively repeat the one just completed in 2016.  For we already have a National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, with a finalized plan set to run from 2017-2022, which the government (both federal and states), oil industry and energy consulting firms, and environmental groups spent two years and who knows how much money to complete.  As always, these plans are revisited, revised, and occasionally overhauled every five years. But this gang may not be around in 2021-2022 when it’ll actually be time to once again jump into this particular vat of no-fun-for-anyone. So let’s just tear it up and do it all again now!

UPDATE, 2/16/18: Caroline Ailanthus rightfully notes that diving back into processing hundreds of thousands of public comments and writing up a new programmatic EIS will keep BOEM staff from fulfilling their many other tasks, which include assessing new science and identifying key data gaps, smaller project-level environmental assessments, and overseeing new research. She asks, “Do you suppose interfering with research in this way could be the point of this massive do-over?”

But before we get too caught up with the swarm of freaked out bees in our bonnet, let’s step back and consider the actual energy development landscape as it exists in the real world, as distinct from the fever dreams of this administration’s oil and gas cheerleaders. Read the rest of this entry »

More evidence of fish being affected by shipping, energy development noise

Ocean, Ocean energy, shipping No Comments »

A couple of recent studies have added to the increasing evidence that anthropogenic ocean noise can have deleterious effects on fish. As the years go by, it’s becoming clear that it’s not just whales and dolphins that are struggling with human noise in the sea.

A lab-based study of European sea bass found that recordings of pile driving sounds (often associated with bridge, port, or wind farm construction) and of drilling sounds triggered subtle yet troubling changes in behavior. The sudden bursts of pile driving induced a startle response, while both kinds of sounds increased stress, as measured by the fishes’ respiration rate. In addition, both sources of human noise appeared to suppress their normal predator inspection behavior, which could make them more susceptible to predation (though after a half hour of drilling noise, the bass returned to normal anti-predator behavior).

Ilaria Spiga, a doctoral candidate at Newcastle University and the lead author of the study, explained, “Exposure to underwater noises can make it harder for fishes to detect and react to predators. . . If fishes actively avoid areas where these sounds are present it could prevent them from entering spawning grounds, or affect communication between individuals.”

The question of communication was at the heart of a new study from the same team that has been investigating how shipping noise can reduce the communication space of whales. The new research, led by Jenni Stanley, focuses on two key commercial fish, cod and haddock. Utilizing the network of bottom-mounted hydrophones that they’ve deployed in Massachusetts Bay for the past decade, the researchers recorded the grunts of cod and the “knocks” of haddock, along with the noise of ships in the area. The most striking effect was the difference in noise levels between the cod’s winter spawning site near the Boston shipping lanes and their spring spawning site near the fishing fleets of Cape Ann, north of Boston. While there were many more boats near the spring site, these smaller vessels resulted in overall sound levels 11-15dB lower than at the winter site, which in turn allowed the cod to maintain dramatically larger communication space. (The distances over which cod could be heard were not measured directly, but rather calculated based on the source levels of their grunts and the prevailing levels of ship noise.)

At the quieter spring sites, the mean communication distance was 15 meters (below 11m during the noisiest 10% of the time, and over 19m at the quietest 10% of times), while in the winter sites, they could only be heard out to 2.7 meters (with 10% extremes of under 2.1m and over 3.4m at the very best of times).  The haddock spawning sites had intermediate noise levels, and at their loudest could be heard at slightly longer range than the winter cod, though a weaker form of their call had the shortest range of any of those assessed.

The authors note (see full paper here):

Mounting evidence suggests that acoustic communication can affect the survival and reproductive success of fishes, including direct evidence for Atlantic cod. . . .Unlike haddock who have a wide acoustic repertoire, Atlantic cod are thought to be less versatile vocalists during courtship. . . If anthropogenic sound reduces the efficiency of the vocalizations utilized by these species, this interference could potentially impact their reproductive success and survival through the incorrect assessment of the quality of potential mates or competitors, reduction in the ability to attract mates and/or the mistiming of gamete release.

While stressing that we still have much to learn about how fish may compensate for noise (by using other cues to find each other, vocalizing during quieter moments, increasing the intensity of their sounds, etc.), the authors conclude:

This research highlights the need to gain a better understanding of the spatial and temporal use of unique habitats that are predictably used for critical life history events in declining populations. Identifying and better understanding these consequences [at all levels of the food chain] is important to advancing the management of shared acoustic space.

Oysters and scallops: no ears, but they still hate loud ocean noises

Ocean, Seismic Surveys, shipping No Comments »

A recent line of research ups the ante on how widespread the impacts of human noise in the ocean may be. Oysters appear to suddenly and dramatically close up in response to low frequency noise at intensities that are relatively common—beginning at sound as levels as low as 120dB, and ramping up rapidly above 140dB. The figure at left shows how fast the shells closed at top and the degree of closing at bottom (from the minimal to maximal responses observed). Effects were strongest from 10-200Hz, a frequency range that includes shipping and seismic survey sounds.

While oysters, like many other shellfish and crustaceans, do not have ears, they are sensitive to vibrations; earlier oyster studies speculate that they may be responding to subtle seabed vibrations, though it’s also possible their tissues are responding to water-borne particle motion. Another recent paper looked at scallop behavior and mortality after exposure to airguns, and reports that negative effects were seen for months after exposure:

“Exposure to seismic signals was found to significantly increase mortality, particularly over a chronic (months postexposure) time scale, though not beyond naturally occurring rates of mortality. Exposure did not elicit energetically expensive behaviors, but scallops showed significant changes in behavioral patterns during exposure, through a reduction in classic behaviors and demonstration of a nonclassic “flinch” response to air gun signals. … Hemolymph (blood analog) physiology showed a compromised capacity for homeostasis and potential immunodeficiency, … with effects observed over acute (hours to days) and chronic (months) scales. … Given the scope of physiological disruption, we conclude that seismic exposure can harm scallops.”

As our colleagues at Ocean Conservation stress in their coverage of these new developments, all this is part of a rapidly expanding awareness of the ways that our noise compromises ocean life far beyond the whales and dolphins that were the focus of initial concern and research. Early this year saw the publication of a comprehensive review of the potential impacts of marine seismic surveys on fish & invertebrates. The authors point out that on many topics (fish catch rates, startle responses, tissue damage) results have been mixed/contradictory, with some studies finding negative impacts and others finding no response; their paper lays out key areas for future research that could begin to clarify these ambiguities.

The authors of a 2016 study on the effects of shipping and construction noise on lobsters and clams paint the picture quite clearly:

Tim Leighton, Professor of Ultrasonics and Underwater Acoustics and study co-author, said: “There has been much discussion over the last decade of the extent to which whales, dolphins and fish stocks, might be disturbed by the sounds from shipping, windfarms and their construction, seismic exploration etc. However, one set of ocean denizens has until now been ignored, and unlike these other classes, they cannot easily move away from loud man-made sound sources. These are the bottom feeders, such as crabs, shellfish and invertebrates similar to the ones in our study, which are crucial to healthy and commercially successful oceans because they form the bottom of the food chain.” Co-author Dr Chris Hauton, Associate Professor in Invertebrate Ecophysiology and Immune Function, added: “I think these findings raise the prospect that anthropogenic sounds in the marine environment are impacting marine invertebrate species in ways that have not been previously anticipated.”

The Leighton and Hauton study, using sound playbacks mimicking a ship at 100 yards and wind farm construction at 60 yards, found that both lobsters and clams changed their digging behaviors, and triggered changes in their overall activity level (lobsters increased, clams decreased); they found no marked effects on brittlestar activity.

Clearly, we are still in the early stages of understanding how our noises may be changing ocean ecosystems. In addition, the recent review paper affirms a longstanding concern that noise may act as a synergistic stressor, making animals more susceptible to other known stressors such as food shortages or rising ocean temperatures, noting that “Single stressors related to sound exposure may show no effects in isolation but when combined with other stressors effects may become pronounced.” New study designs are beginning to tease out these inter-relationships, giving researchers and ocean managers new tools that can move both science and policy forward in constructive ways.

Fishermen blasting “seal bombs” 30,000 times a month off Southern California

Ocean, Science No Comments »

They look small, about the size of a “cherry bomb” firecracker.  They’re legal, exempt from the Marine Mammal Protection Act thanks to their functional purpose: protecting fishermen’s nets from seals and cetaceans poaching their catches, including squid, anchovies, and tuna.

But they are loud and used freely in waters off southern California. Divers report physical pressure waves hitting them from up to a mile away; they’re audible in the water out to tens of kilometers and have been recorded by Scripps Acoustic Ecology Laboratory hydrophones 37,000 times a month at peak fishing season—up to 500 blasts an hour at times.

A recent article in Hakai Magazine delves into this little-known ocean noise issue. “The amount of use is alarming,” says Scripp’s Simone Baumann-Pickering. “We know the noise poses a potential threat.”  While earlier NOAA research with dolphin carcasses demonstrated they can cause physical damage at extremely close range (less than a meter), the Scripps team did not document any physical injuries, though they stress that behavioral impacts are likely.  Divers and whale watch captains confirm that whales tend to avoid areas where the seal-bombs are in use; yet fishermen counter with reports of dolphins and whales being unfazed by their use (keeping the uncertainty cycle spinning, conservationists speculate that such non-response could be related to deafness from previous exposure to this or other loud noise).

In an effort to move beyond the conflicting anecdotal report, the Scripps researchers are now looking more closely at the effects of the noise on Risso’s dolphins, a squid-loving species that is commonly exposed. As Baumann-Pickering affirms, “In science, you have to measure the effects.”

Note: Hakai Magazine, published by a foundation in British Columbia, is well worth being on the radar of any ocean lover.

 

Shipping, conservation expand in the Arctic

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

The Arctic is one of the last expanses of the world ocean that has escaped the increasing din of shipping traffic over the past fifty years, but this respite may soon be ending.  China and Russia are rapidly ramping up plans to take advantage of retreating sea ice along the northern coast of Siberia, opening up a new sea route from China to Europe that is significantly shorter than traveling through the Panama or Suez Canals. Meanwhile, the Canadian and Inuit governments have designated a large National Marine Conservation Area in Lancaster Sound, smack dab in the middle of the North-West Passage, which is similarly ripe for increased shipping in the coming decades.

The so-called Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage) will benefit from Russia’s fleet of forty icebreakers and eleven Arctic ports; by contrast, there are no Arctic ports on the US/Canadian coastline (one deep in Hudson Bay closed last year). Rob Heubert, a former member of Canada’s Polar Commission, notes that “The Chinese are taking the long view and they’re building ships, icebreakers, and ports to capitalize on the future, which may not be as far off as many think.”  Maine Senator Angus King is championing an “Arctic” port in Portland, Maine to become the first US landing point for this increased Asian shipping traffic.

Some Russian observers suggest that the country’s investment in ports and icebreakers is a “money-losing… Soviet-style undertaking” that is bound to fail, with the port fees necessary to pay for this infrastructure likely to drive ships outside Russian territorial waters into the Transpolar Sea Route as that becomes accessible. Nonetheless, last week a Russian natural gas tanker made the fastest-ever transit of the Northern Sea Route, traveling for the first time without an ice breaker (the ship was designed to do some ice-breaking on its own).

Wherever and whenever Arctic sea lanes open up consistently enough to spur rapid increases in annual transits, it will be crucial to direct the traffic in ways that minimize the impact on relatively pristine arctic soundscapes. To this end, both the Canadian Coast Guard and the Pew Charitable Trusts have been working toward management of the North-West Passage; see this earlier AEI coverage.

The new Marine Conservation Area will preclude oil and gas development and seabed mining, but will not stop ship traffic. Lancaster Sound, now to be known by its Inuit name Tallurutiup Imanga, has been called the Serengeti of the Arctic thanks to its concentration of wildlife, especially narwhals, belugas, and polar bears. (Check out this image and video gallery!) In 2009, the Inuit sued the Canadian government to stop plans for seismic surveys in the area, beginning the process that culminated in the recent plan for joint management of these precious waters. Jackie Dawson, a University of Ottowa environmental geographer, is working with Inuit communities to identify ecologically and culturally significant areas, with hopes to designate “no go” and “go slow” zones to reduce sonic intrusions and the risk of ship strikes.  This is exactly the kind of work we need to see across the polar regions, before the ice melts enough to change Arctic soundscapes forever.

Trumpistas target NOAA’s ocean noise oversight

Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, Sonar No Comments »

Tip o’ the hat to longtime partner in crime Ocean Conservation Research for catching this insult to the ears of whales, seals, fish, and crustaceans. As part of its hatchet-wielding rampage through America’s regulatory arena, the Trump administration has gone beyond “merely” making plans to re-open the Arctic to drilling and issue new permits for seismic surveys off the Atlantic coast (both of which will doubtlessly engender legal challenge). Now they’ve also come for us!

The recent Presidential Executive Order Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy explicitly calls for the Secretary of Commerce to “take all steps permitted by law to rescind or revise” NOAA’s Technical Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing.  This planning document was the result of many years of collaboration among regulators, research scientists, environmental organizations, and the primary ocean noise-makers (oil and gas interests and the Navy).  As OCR’s Michael Stocker notes, “All of this work threatened with a stroke of a pen…”

There’s nothing in the NOAA Guidance document that would stop, or even slow, current oil and gas exploration or Navy testing and training activities. It more or less serves as a formal declaration of the current state of the science and a framework within which further research can be prioritized and carried out. Most importantly, the Guidance provides a one-stop source for physical and behavioral thresholds that are used to determine noise impacts when applying for new permits. Indeed, wiping it from the books would do little more than complicate the compliance efforts of the Navy and oil and gas industry as they plan future activities, as well as NOAA’s legally-mandated environmental assessments. Yet another case of the bull in a china chop approach to governing.

UPDATE, 6/3/17: Here’s an article with some good quotes from scientists involved in creating the Technical Guidance that is being targeted.

Shipping industry embracing voluntary noise guidelines

News, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Turning science into policy is a long, slow road.  The 2004 launch of the Acoustic Ecology Institute more or less coincided with the emergence of shipping noise as an environmental concern; symposia held by the National Marine Fisheries Service (now NOAA Fisheries) in 2004 and the Marine Mammal Commission in 2005 marked the start of growing scientific awareness that moderate chronic noise may be a bigger issue for marine life than the loud, transient sounds of sonar and airguns.  AEI has focused on this key question from the start in special reports and our ongoing news/science coverage.

In 2014, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) completed an at times sluggish six-year process and adopted voluntary noise reduction guidelines for large ships. Since then, the pace seems to be picking up as the shipping industry, port authorities, and eco-certification programs have all begun embracing the need to slow or reverse the long-term trends of increasing shipping noise in most of the world’s oceans.

This month, the port industry trade magazine Port Strategy included a long feature article that brings the story up to date.  Among the new and encouraging developments is the work of Green Marine, a sustainability-certification outfit that works with 28 shipping companies and 38 ports in the US and Canada, including biggies like Seattle and New Orleans.  After partnering with Transport Canada last year on a review of the current state of science in Understanding Anthropogenic Noise, Green Marine has now announced shipping-noise criteria that will be rolled out this year as a voluntary add-on for shipping companies that are part of their certification program, then will become a mandatory element of the Green Marine certification in 2018.  The 5-stage criterion is modest to start, with increasing degrees of commitment (it’s unclear whether companies are expected to continually deepen their commitments, or not).  The exciting news is that shipping companies are voluntarily committing to go beyond what’s required by current regulations; Green Marine Executive Director David Bolduc says:

“It is important to underline that the maritime companies and ports that are certified by Green Marine have voluntarily accepted to adopt the new underwater noise evaluation criteria with no regulations obliging them to do so. These participants made the commitment to address the issue more easily. For others, it was a relatively new issue; they needed to learn about noise, its sources, its potential impacts, and the mitigation measures.

“The indicator is a great tool to help them understand underwater noise and, most importantly, address this emerging issue. [It] is the result of collaboration among the industry, environmental organisations, the scientific community, and government representatives. Two intensive years of research and discussions were necessary to develop the five-level criteria.”

Meanwhile, following up on an AEI note from January, the Port of Vancouver’s inclusion of quiet ship guidelines as part of its reduced-fee Eco-Action initiative has generated its first takers: “We’ve heard anecdotally from some vessel sectors that they plan to upgrade their fleets to meet the new incentive standards,” says the port. “In the first quarter of 2017, two vessels have applied and been awarded a bronze level discount.”

And in the US, NOAA released an Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap in late 2016 that will become the framework for ongoing research and management of ocean noise, including an emphasis on managing acoustic habitat.  All this points to the next decade becoming a real turning point, as the past fifteen years of increasing awareness is channeled into constructive action to begin reducing our noise footprint in the seas.

 

 

SoCal shipping noise: risk and opportunity sites in whale habitat

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

AEI lay summary of
Redfern JV, Hatch LT, Caldow C, DeAngelis ML and others (2017) Assessing the risk of chronic shipping noise to baleen whales off Southern California, USA. Endang Species Res 32:153-167. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00797 (open access)

A paper published earlier this year (on my birthday; what a nice present!) takes a close look at shipping noise levels along the Santa Barbara/Los Angeles coast, with particular attention to key habitat areas for several whale species. This region of offshore waters includes crucial feeding zones on the edge of the continental shelf, as well as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary; meanwhile, some of the shipping traffic headed into the port of Long Beach (near LA) passes between the Sanctuary and the coastline.

The pictures generated by the authors surely qualify for the thousand-words designation, so I’ll let these key graphics tell most of the story—you can click any image to see a larger version.  First up, here’s the number of ship transits occurring in these waters over five months (August to November 2009):

Next, here’s how the accumulated noise of all these ships translates into sound levels. The researchers modeled the sound levels at two different frequencies; this is because the 50Hz band is especially important to blue and fin whales, while the 100Hz band is most important to humpback whales. Note that at both frequencies, there are some areas that remain relatively protected from the worst of the shipping noise. Read the rest of this entry »

Oil companies spurn Trump’s enthusiasm for Arctic oil, gas

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Despite the noises coming from the Trump administration and Alaska’s elected officials, it appears that any new initiatives to expand offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic will be falling on deaf ears among fossil fuel companies.

“We think there is almost no rationale for Arctic exploration,” Goldman Sachs commodity expert Michele Della Vigna said in late March. “Immensely complex, expensive projects like the Arctic we think can move too high on the cost curve to be economically doable.” Indeed, unless oil again approaches $100 a barrel, these areas are likely to be ignored; just last year, oil companies gave up on hundreds of leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas that they had spent $2.5 billion to acquire back when prices were high enough to justify their plans there.

Despite President Trump’s oft-repeated pledge to open up America’s “vast untapped domestic energy reserves,” the fact is that even without the offshore Arctic or the Atlantic coast (both excluded from new leasing from 2017-2022 by the Obama administration), the areas already open to offshore development “make available more than 70% of the economically recoverable resources, which is ample opportunity for oil and gas development to meet the nation’s energy needs.”

For more details, and maps of the Arctic and Atlantic leasing areas, see this AEInews report from January 2017.
UPDATE, 4/28: Just after writing this, notice of the latest Trump Executive Order crossed my desk, this one explicitly targeting the offshore areas removed from the 2017-2022 lease sales by Obama’s team. Meanwhile, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill to re-open Arctic waters; and for added freakiness factor, a NC Congresswoman has introduced a bill to force a lease sale within a year, and exempting this effort from NEPA (ie EIS) provisions for five years!  If any of these proceed into action on leasing, no doubt a court challenge will ensue, centered on the presumed non-reversibility of Obama’s last-month actions.
UPDATE, 5/2: This is encouraging news: the Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of a vast area of the Alaskan ice shelf as critical habitat for polar bears.  The oil and gas industry argued that its short-term activities should not be limited by concerns over longer-term global warming; ie that their ships, drilling, etc. are not in and of themselves responsible for any global warming.  The lower court ruling is not necessarily based on on the idea that oil and gas development should be stopped in the name of climate caution; rather, it simply upholds the FWS contention that the ice shelf is threatened by warming, and that this habit should be spared further intrusions in order to maximize the chances that the polar bears can survive. It’s reassuring that the current Supreme Court was not interested in pushing back against such climate-driven policies.

Warming spurs new 400km undersea sound channel in Arctic

News, Ocean, Science, shipping, Sonar No Comments »

Beaufort icebreaker cropIn yet another unforeseen consequence of global warming, scientists have begun charting the extent of a new underwater sound channel in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. As recently as the 1970’s, the water here was coldest just below the ice, but in recent decades two warmer layers have developed, one in the first 50 meters of water, and the second at around 200 meters deep.  Since sound in water tends toward the coldest layers, it used to be dissipated by the rough bottom side of the ice, but now it’s reflected between the warm layers and travels much farther. Research in 2014 and 2016 documented sound transmission across 400 kilometers (250 miles), four times farther than before the emergence of this channel, dubbed the Beaufort Lens.

The near-surface has been warmed by an increased flow of meltwater from rivers and by larger ice-free areas exposed to the sun; this slightly warmer surface water has long been present in summer, but used to disappear in winter.  Meanwhile, warmer waters entering the Beaufort from the North Pacific through the Bering Strait (and perhaps even from the Atlantic, through northern Canada) have contributed to the growth of the deeper warm layer. As is the case for most ocean noise research, the US Navy is a key funder; they’re interested in how increased noise transmission might “dramatically impact the effectiveness of sonar operations.”

The full extent of the Beaufort Lens sound channel is not yet known; further research is planned in the spring of 2018. The area affected is likely to vary with annual changes in the influx of warmer waters and to expand over time as longer-term climate change progresses. Increased shipping traffic is projected to be a major factor in rising ocean noise levels in the Arctic over the coming decades; oil and gas exploration could add to the din if the offshore oil industry rethinks its abandonment of these waters in recent years. In addition, general background noise in some areas could also increase thanks to longer-range transmission of whale calls, which have always been one of the primary sources of ambient sound in these waters.

Much ado about not much in Obama’s offshore oil bans

News, Ocean, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

While I was certainly glad to hear that President Obama has declared most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the Alaskan arctic “indefinitely off limits” to oil and gas development, the roar of approval from the media and environmentally-minded public was louder than the action actually merits. And the Atlantic withdrawals appear next to meaningless. I know we should never look a gift horse in the mouth, but even a quick glance reveals more gum than enamel in this one. Nonetheless, I’ll take an over-enthusiastic celebratory shout over even the fading ghost of the chance of much more enduring and disruptive roars from seismic surveys, crazy-loud engines on stabilized drilling platforms, and decades of crew transport and tanker traffic. It’s not for nothing that diverse group of scientists and activists have been calling on Obama to do just this for the past couple of years.

Still, I’m here to temper the joy. Before looking at the maps that put the modest impact of this move in perspective, there’s a red flag right up top that deserves a bit more clarification. All commenters, enviros and energy companies alike, seem to agree that this withdrawal is more consequential than the November announcement by the Department of Interior that no lease sales would be offered in either the Arctic or Atlantic for the upcoming 2017-2022 leasing period, a decision that’s won’t be finalized until July and could have been vulnerable to reversal by the incoming administration. Obama’s new declaration likely closes the door on such a rapid reconsideration of these upcoming five-year plans. But notice that the magic word in the withdrawals is “indefinitely,” not “permanently.” It seems that the door is left open to reconsideration: the White House statement detailing the withdrawal states that the “indefinitely off limits” designation is “to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.” (To be fair, the text is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this 5-year review applies to both the US and Canadian actions, or just the latter.)

UPDATE, 1/11/17: The outgoing administration tied up a worrisome loose end this week by denying six pending applications to do exploratory seismic surveys in the Mid- and South-Atlantic planning areas. This is a one-time denial; future re-applications can be considered at any time. New surveys will be necessary to inform any future lease sales in these areas.

So for now, let’s celebrate that at least the first term of a Trump administration has its hands fairly well tied in its ambitions to expand US offshore oil production from its current focus on the Gulf of Mexico and in a 200 mile strip of waters along Alaska’s Arctic coast. Wait, what’s that? Yep, the big withdrawal announcement doesn’t remove any of the areas already being actively developed off Alaska’s northern shores (brown in this map):

artic-obama-withdrawal-map

The good news is that there are currently only a handful of producing wells in that brown strip, on three of the five lease areas owned by one company, Hilcorp, just offshore from Deadhorse (they’re the tiny green areas in the next map, below). In fact, out of the peak of 480 lease tracts in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that had been acquired by energy companies as of 2008, only 43 leases (including 53 lease blocks) are still even nominally in the planning pipeline; 42 of them are in this area that remains available to future leasing as well. Falling oil prices, disappointing test well production, and both logistical and increased regulatory hurdles have led many of the companies that were once so enthused about moving into these waters to formally abandon their leases.

Here’s a look at where things stood as recently as July 2015, when the Chukchi was still the focus of industry hopes and dreams: Read the rest of this entry »

Good news and bad news on BC shipping traffic

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

British Columbia has been a hotspot of concern—and research—about the extent and the impacts of shipping noise. The southern BC coast is close to acoustic saturation, with any increase in noise having the potential to completely overwhelm the underwater soundscape; meanwhile the northern coast holds a few areas that are still nearly free of human noise intrusion, and we need to do all we can to preserve these increasingly rare acoustic refuges. These contentious waters have been roiled in several contradictory though perhaps ultimately productive ways by recent Canadian government actions. In the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a northern pipeline was rejected and a southern one approved; meanwhile, ongoing research aims to identify the noisiest ships and help inform new regulations that could reduce overall noise levels.

bc-tanker-vanc-to-burnabysmThe biggest headlines and fears have been spurred by the final approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion that will deliver oil from the Alberta tar sands to an existing port in Burnaby, BC. The port currently hosts about five tankers a month; the increased flow in the expanded pipeline (75% the capacity as the proposed Keystone XL) will necessitate about 35 ships a month, meaning an average of two tanker transits a day past Vancouver as they travel to and from the Strait of Georgia off the coast. These waters are currently burdened by shipping noise 85% of the time, and the increased traffic will push this to 100% in some areas. Concern centers on the tenuous status of the region’s orca populations, which are struggling to find the salmon they need; shipping noise makes it harder for them to track salmon with their echolocation clicks and to communicate with each other as they search for food. “Death by a thousand cuts, and this is a very deep cut,” says Deborah Giles, research director for the Center for Whale Research. “They’re spending more energy to find less food and we’re adding the equivalent of a rock concert,” she says. “These whales will not survive.”

Environmental groups will likely file suit challenging the approval, citing the government’s failure to mitigate the increased impact. At the same time, though, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Transport Minister Marc Garneau are working on a revamped recovery plan for the 80 remaining resident orcas.  LeBlanc notes that  Read the rest of this entry »

Humpback bottom-feeding is (somewhat) affected by shipping noise

Ocean, Science, Sonar No Comments »

AEI lay summary of:  Blair HB, Merchant ND, Friedlaender AS, Wiley DN, Parks SE. 2016. Evidence for ship noise impacts on humpback whale foraging behaviour. Biol. Lett. 12: 20160005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2016.0005

Sand lance 350pA new study looks for the first time at the impact of human noise on an important type of humpback whale foraging activity, bottom-feeding on sand lance.  The research took place in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the southern Gulf of Maine, where humpback whales routinely do deep dives at night, rolling to their sides when they reach the bottom to forage for the small fish.

To assess the whales’ responses to human noise, D-Tags were placed on ten individuals over the course of two years.  These temporary suction-cup tags record received sound levels that the animal is hearing, as well as tracking the details of their dives.  The tagged whales made 218 dives, 83 with ship noise exposure and 135 without ships nearby.

Here’s an example of the sort of picture that the D-tags can provide:

Blair 2016 Humpback side roll Dtag track plot

The results show a 29% decrease in the number of “bottom side-roll feeding events” as the received level of the ship noise increased, as well as a 13-14% decrease in both the descent and ascent rate of the dives.  Interestingly, the increase in received noise level was rather small overall (received level was higher when ship noise was present, but not statistically significantly higher), perhaps indicating that the ships were, on average, not all that close.  As is typical, the team used advanced statistical techniques to tease out modest effects from the subtle and varied data. (In case you’re wondering, they used “linear mixed-effects models” with data “square root transformed to approximate normality,” then calculated effects by “summing Akaike weights of all models.” Sounds good to me!)

The raw numbers put the effects into some more straightforward perspective.   Read the rest of this entry »

Belugas struggling in Cook Inlet, St. Lawrence rivers

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science 2 Comments »

Two troubling reports have surfaced regarding beluga whale populations in waters that have become increasingly industrialized and noisy in recent years.  In Quebec’s Saguenay River, the major river system draining into the St. Lawrence, recent years have seen a sharp uptick in dead beluga babies and pregnant mothers; in 2015, these sensitive individuals were half of all known mortalities.  Increased noise is the primary culprit; according to the CBC, “The researchers are working from the theory that beluga calves have soft calls, which may be drowned out by the noise from ships, ferries and boats in the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers.”

In Alaska’s Cook Inlet, beluga range has shrunk dramatically over the past couple of decades (see map below), and accelerated in recent years, as ongoing port construction and oil and gas development has introduced increasing levels of noise into these key waters.  It’s unclear whether the smaller range is simply a reflection of a reduced local population, meaning they don’t need to range so far to avoid competing with each other for food, or if they are responding to the increasing chronic noise.  See previous AEInews coverage of the Cook Inlet belugas here.  Recent NMFS research papers on the changes can be accessed at this link, and this in-depth article from a couple years back is a good overview of the current development and research activities.

Beluga range Cook Inlet 1978-2014

Marine invertebrates also affected by ocean noise

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, shipping No Comments »

Some of the most interesting new work in ocean noise is revealing the myriad ways that humanity’s sounds can have negative impacts on ocean life other than marine mammals.  Sure, everyone loves our warm-blooded kin, but there’s way more to the ocean ecosystem than dolphins, humpbacks, and seals.  AEInews has been covering this leading edge for years (see these posts on shellfish larvae, crabs, and squid).  Recently, at the triannual Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life conference, held this year in Dublin, a slew of new papers revealed further concerns.

blue-banded_hermit_crabThis post from NRDC summarizes the highlights.  One of the most striking findings was that 6 hours of shipping noise can damage the DNA in the cells of mussels, perhaps due to a stress response; similarly, protein structures in the sensory cells of cuttlefish were damaged by low-frequency noise.  These would be some of the most profound impacts yet discovered; note, though, that the brief summary here does not specify the sound levels—some research on health effects use much higher exposures than are likely in the wild, as a way of identifying possible effects for further study at lower exposure levels.  Other new studies followed on previous ones that suggest many animals respond to noise as if it were a predator; these responses often suggest increased stress, and are waste of precious energy, or disrupt feeding.  Also of note is a one-off anecdotal observation (not yet studied systematically) of a hermit crab exiting its shell after exposure to low-freqency sound; it appeared to be examining its shell, perhaps trying to determine the source of the disruption, or checking for physical damage. While out of its shell, it would be vulnerable to predation.

All this new research is both exciting, as it reveals the vast and subtle role of sound in the natural world, and sobering in facing us with the widespread consequences of our heedless sonic intrusions into wild ecosystems.

 

New court ruling on Navy sonar has big implications

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A new court ruling could fundamentally change the standards that the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service have been using to regulate Navy sonar, by requiring more areas to be set aside as off-limits to the Navy’s routine peacetime operations.  A federal appeals court has ruled that simply determining that Navy activities will have “negligible impact” on populations is not sufficient; regulators must also, and separately, set standards for sonar use that assure the “least practicable adverse impact” on marine mammals and their habitats.  (Download the ruling; it’s only 35 pages, not a bad read!)  As those who have been following the evolution of the NMFS’s ongoing cycle of five-year authorizations for Navy activities will know, the routine procedure has been to dutifully tally the numbers of animals that may be affected—generally they predict relatively few injuries or deaths (more when explosives training is involved), as well as behavioral effects on millions of animals—and then to determine that the long term effects on each species’ population levels will be negligible.  This negligible-impact finding then allows NMFS to issue permits allowing for the predicted effects.

NMFS has been presuming that negligible impact is sufficient to also satisfy the requirement for “least practicable impact.”  Their basic argument was that you can’t get a lower impact than negligible.  However, there were a couple of flaws in this approach.  First, the threshold for population-level effects in this permit was presumed to be 12% of the regional population of any given species being able to hear, and have their behavior potentially changed, by sonar transmissions; clearly, there IS room to reduce this degree of impact.  But more importantly to this court, the NMFS’s approach to determining what areas are “biologically important,” and so worthy of some protection from routine sonar operations, was found to violate the “least practicable impact” standard—and it appears that designating more protected habitat will be essential to meeting this standard.

Note: This court case concerns the SURTASS-LFA low-frequency active sonar, currently deployed on four US surveillance vessels, rather than the mid-frequency active sonar that has been the focus of most of the previous legal wrangling.  This LFA lawsuit challenged routine, peacetime use of the sonar worldwide; by contrast, all the mid-frequency challenges up til now have only sought to constrain testing and training activities in Naval training ranges off the US coasts, not its widespread routine use by over a hundred Navy ships around the world.  So this case has a limited immediate scope, though the underlying theme of setting aside more areas as off-limits is a core element of all the sonar and naval training legal challenges, and this new clarification by the courts on the separate requirement for “least practicable impact” could apply to all NMFS permitting.  

This court ruling does not prescribe a new management plan; it merely found that the current one does not meet the letter of the law.  This case is now remanded back to the district court for further deliberation.  However, we are approaching the end of the 5-year authorizations that have been challenged here (2012-2017), so the most likely consequence of this ruling is that the NEXT round of authorizations, due in 2017, will need to take more care in meeting the “least practicable impact” standard, either by expanding the areas off-limits to sonar, or by more adequately justifying why NMFS feels they are meeting this standard in other ways.

An apparently deciding factor in the court ruling was a 2010 white paper written by four NMFS “subject matter experts,” Read the rest of this entry »

AEI presentation at Ecoacoustics 2016

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, Wildlands 1 Comment »

I recently returned from the 2016 Ecoacoustics Congress, the 2nd meeting of the new International Society of Ecoacoustics, held this year at Michigan State University in Lansing. It was a very informative gathering of fascinating researchers from around the world; several traveled from Australia, a couple from Taiwan, many from Europe, and some from South America. I’ll add more here soon about this rapidly-advancing field, but for now, I wanted to quickly post a PDF version of my presentation:

Saving High-quality Acoustic Habitat: Identifying areas of relative natural quiet by Jim Cummings

Top researchers urge US to hold off on Atlantic seismic surveys

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

Oceana Right Whale map250WEBIn a second letter to the Obama administration, 28 top ocean noise and whale researchers have raised serious concerns about planned seismic surveys along the east coast of the U.S.  The scientists cite several recent studies that shed light ways that the long term health and reproductive rates of right whales have been affected by temporary stresses, and suggest that the planned seismic program could push this extremely endangered species over the edge.  With only 500 individuals remaining, the loss of each individual creates a significant impact on long term population viability.  According to the letter,

Notably, according to analysis by the New England Aquarium, even a small decline of only ten percent in right whale health can impair reproduction or eliminate it entirely. A newly published study shows that a population-wide deterioration in North Atlantic right whale health from 1998 to 2000 was correlated with a drastic drop in calving rates, further indicating that factors influencing health can be responsible for suppressing reproduction.

With previous studies showing noise causing lasting stress in right whales, and that whales that have been through an entanglement experience with fishing gear show lasting health effects and reduced reproduction, the researchers conclude:

In light of the desperate level of endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale and the serious consequences of entanglement, it is critical that other major stressors are minimized or removed to ensure the recovery and long-term survival of this species. The additional stress of widespread seismic airgun surveys may well represent a tipping point for the survival of this endangered whale, contributing significantly to a decline towards extinction.

A year ago, 75 scientists wrote to the Obama administration to urge them to reject plans for seismic surveys and oil and gas development along the Atlantic seaboard.  In March of this year, plans to offer drilling leases for the five-year period 2017-2021 were abandoned.  A future administration may re-open the area for later five-year planning periods, and the oil and gas industry wants to conduct new surveys in the meantime.  Currently, four companies have applied to the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management (BOEM) for permits to conduct surveys in the Atlantic (see maps above and below).  This new letter from 28 of the same researchers who wrote last year asks the administration to follow up its announcement to keep the Atlantic closed to drilling, by now also withdrawing the 2014 decision to open the area to new surveys, in the light of the new research that is not included in the previous environmental impact statement—or at the very least, to refrain from issuing any permits until after NOAA’s planned 2017 right whale status review, which may confirm whether recent slowdowns in the species’ population growth have continued.

The NRDC elaborates on the expertise of these researchers:

The statement is signed by some 28 marine biologists with particular expertise on the right whale, from such institutions as Cornell, Duke, the New England Aquarium, Wildlife Conservation Society (the conservation arm of the Bronx Zoo), UNCW, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For right whales, it doesn’t get much more authoritative than this.

The map at the top of this post highlights designated right whale Essential Habitat (red) and Seasonal Management Areas (blue cross-hatches).  Note that the areas largely overlap; this duplication of effort and noise is among the concerns expressed by regional and national ocean advocacy organizations; oil and gas exploration companies routinely duplicate each others’ surveys, with everyone’s data being held as proprietary information.  The larger map below shows designated Essential Habitat for a wide range of Atlantic species.  One of the proposed survey areas is well offshore, fifty or more miles from the key right whale habitat, while the other three come right to the edge of the designated habits, or even overlap with them.  Seismic survey sounds can routinely extend for tens of miles from the survey vessels (and up to 1500 miles in deep offshore waters), so concerns about increased stress—especially in the nursery areas along the southwest coast—apply to all the proposed survey areas, if they take place when whales are present.

For more from the researchers involved, see this press release that includes several quotes, and for more on the maps, produced by Oceana, see this article from the Coastal Review and this page on Oceana’s website.

Oceana Essential Habitat Map Atlantic500WEB

Taming ship traffic in the warming Arctic

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Ship traffic through Canada’s Northwest Passage has more than doubled since 2004 and tripled since the 1980s, mostly thanks to much longer open-water seasons as the Arctic continues to warm.  Today’s 300-350 voyages per year is expected to double again as both mining and tourism rise in the years ahead.

In response, there are increasing calls to manage the increased ship traffic, both to improve safety and minimize environmental impacts.  A new report from Pew Charitable Trusts draws on recent data, previous Canadian government reports, and First Nations concerns to make the case. “Corridors give people a roadmap to follow,” said Louie Porta, one of the report’s authors. “A robust corridor system is a recommendation for vessels to stick to a very, very small portion of the Arctic waters as opposed to now, where there are no limits – vessels can basically go wherever they want.”  The map below shows 2014 ship tracks criss-crossing key biologically important areas in the western part of the Northwest Passage; here’s a link to the full map.

Pew report-2014 ship tracksCROP

According to an in-depth article on the excellent new website Arctic Deeply:

Government and Inuit groups have identified at least 38 areas of ecological and biological significance (EBSAs) occupying nearly 50 percent of Canadian Arctic waters. “There’s a high concurrence of vessel traffic patterns and areas of biological significance. We can’t say that ships can’t go where the environment is significant, but it’s possible to create a more flexible, dynamic policy that identifies what times of year ships can be in certain locations,” said Porta. . . . Under the proposed framework, shipping corridors would be identified by integrating human and vessel safety, environmental protection and Inuit rights.

The Canadian Coastguard has been working on a similar plan to concentrate shipping traffic.  However, their current proposal for the Beaufort Sea allows shipping in 45% of regional ecological, biological and Inuit areas of significance, while the Pew report’s recommended lanes overlap just 25% of these key areas.

Arctic shipping is a much bigger issue than just the Northwest Passage.  Arctic Deeply has been quick to dive into this important topic, including a recent piece on the impact of Arctic shipping noise on whales, and a long Q&A with a geographer who focuses on climate change and the Arctic.

 

Using gliders to listen for whales 24/7

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science No Comments »

gliderWEBOver the past few years, researchers have developed an increasingly diverse set of platforms for listening in on the world beneath the ocean’s waves.  Now, in addition to recorders deployed in key areas for months at a time and temporary suction-cup acoustic tags on individual whales, a long-anticipated mobile option is moving into more widespread use.  Autonomous gliders offer an enticing combination of attributes: they can operate for weeks or months at a time, exploring a region rather than staying in one place; they can be outfitted with a range of sampling capabilities; and they are relatively inexpensive to build and deploy.  Subsea gliders can dive to 200 meters deep and resurface periodically to transmit data to data centers on shore; they’ve been used for physical sampling of oceanographic data (temperature, salinity, etc.) for many years, but it’s only more recently that acoustic sampling has become common.

The most exciting thing about putting recorders on gliders is that they can operate around the clock, monitoring for whales even in bad weather and at night, when ship-based researchers cannot.  Plus, the cost of operating research ships means that field studies are short and targeted to areas already known to be hot spots for whale activity, while gliders can be used to explore regions that we know less about. In particular, we know that whales tend to move around season-to-season in search of the best feeding opportunities; on the Scotian Shelf in the Canadian Atlantic, some areas that are protected feeding habitat have been largely abandoned in recent years due to lack of prey.  Gliders can help identify where the alternative feeding grounds may be, so they, too, can be protected.

This spring the Canadian WHaLE project (Whales, Habitat, and Listening Experiment) is expanding to the west coast. For three weeks, a six-foot glider will explore waters off Vancouver Island.

“Ocean gliders are a new technique for gaining insights into whale ecology on Canada’s West Coast,” says David Duffus, who leads the west coast project. “Many species of concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act are termed ‘data deficient.’ We need more information on whale habitats and whale feeding ‘hot spots’ so we can put in protective measures, such as real time whale-alerts for shipping traffic.”

In addition to the longer-term goal of increasing our understanding of changing habitat use patterns, the gliders could also help reduce ship strikes. There is hope that in some especially busy shipping lanes, gliders may offer a new way to let ship captains know when whales are nearby; this is especially important for the critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale.

New maps offer more detail to ocean planners about how animal concentrations change during the year

Ocean, Science No Comments »

An ongoing challenge for ocean regulators has been our relatively coarse understanding of where ocean animals are at any given time.  For many species, we’ve been limited to relatively broad-brush data, such as regional population estimates or having a moderately clear idea about particular feeding or breedings areas, with limited knowledge of where these same animals go at other times of year.  All this has made the crucial task of estimating the impacts of human activities (Naval sonar and explosives exercises, oil and gas seismic surveys, construction of new shipping ports) somewhere between difficult and impossible—leading to a mountain of EISs, agency determinations, and court filings over the question of how best to protect ocean life from our noisy actions at sea. Confounding matters for all concerned, on the matter of protecting key habitat, the Navy has sometimes prevailed and sometimes lost in recent challenges.

Over the past decade or so, several projects have been bringing data together from a slew of historical studies, along with doing new surveys in the field that flesh out our understanding of animal distributions.  These efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

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This week, a team from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Lab released a series of maps and new mapping tools to the public and to other researchers, making available data they’ve been compiling for use in the current round of environmental analysis for the Navy’s east coast and Gulf of Mexico training ranges, and for inclusion in NOAA’s ongoing Cetacean and Sound Mapping project (also known as CetSound).

In addition to an open-access paper published in Nature Scientific Reports, a set of comprehensive species-specific supplemental reports (each one running to over a hundred pages), and a good layman’s overview using the Story Map platform, the Lab also has an online mapping portal, OBIS-SEAMAP, that displays annual animal densities for marine mammals, seabirds, sharks, rays, turtles, and even a few lizards of conservation concern.  OBIS-SEAMAP—short for the Ocean Biogeographic Information System: Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations—archives hundreds of surveys, satellite telemetry datasets, and photo-ID collections, and has now expanded to include long-term archival of species distribution models. Read the rest of this entry »