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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

News, Ocean, Sonar No Comments »

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

News, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

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.

baleen two seasonsWEB500

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 »

1st recordings from deepest spot in ocean: whales, typhoon, ships

Ocean, Science No Comments »

challenger deepWEB250A team of researchers from Oregon State University has made the first-ever recordings of what the soundscape is like in the ocean’s deepest spot: the Challenger Deep.  This part of the Mariana Trench is more than 36,000 feet below the surface, but it’s not all that isolated from the normal cacophony of the seas.  As lead investigator Robert Dziak says,

“You would think that the deepest part of the ocean would be one of the quietest places on Earth. Yet there is almost constant noise. The ambient sound field is dominated by the sound of earthquakes, both near and far, as well as distinct moans of baleen whales, and the clamor of a category 4 typhoon that just happened to pass overhead.”

deep graphic WEB500They also heard large ships coming in “loud and strong,” and even the calls of a smaller  toothed whale or dolphin relatively near the surface; you can listen to short sound clips here.  It may seem surprising that sound penetrates so deep.  But of course, seven miles is not really all that far in the ocean; whales routinely communicate over larger distances, and several human sounds sources are readily heard for tens of miles around (or hundreds when caught in a sound-reflecting layer).  What sets the ocean’s depths apart is the extreme density of the water, which can facilitate sound transmission.  Still, it’s a bit disconcerting to realize that no part of the sea is truly free of the acoustic footprints of man.

 

New gas port proposals adding injury to insult in BC

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

The British Columbia coast is a wild territory, yet one pockmarked with major shipping facilities.  Four related ports stretch down the coast from Prince Rupert, sending coal, grain, and other products to Asian markets and south to the U.S. and beyond.  Canadian First Nations and environmental groups have been raising alarms about the cumulative impacts of increased development in this remote area, while innovative ocean noise research is modeling the ways different species’ listening and communication ranges may be affected by more shipping.

Pacific Northwest LNG and Prince Rupert LNG dredging map -Skeena Wild Conservation Trust Ocean Ecology-850x720Now, plans for two more port facilities, on islands just down the coast from the current Prince Rupert complex, have perhaps gone too far.  These are natural gas facilities, next to and literally on top of the Flora Bank, a primary feeding area for juvenile salmon.  Project proponents stress that their design will avoid damaging the area, but they seem to be discounting the potentially devastating acoustic impact of the bringing huge ships this close to a sensitive habitat.

eelgrass sockeyeSMFlora Bank, in intertidal waters off Lelu Island, contains about 60 per cent of the eel grass habitat in the Skeena Estuary, a watershed that gives birth to 200 million young salmon each year.  This expanse of eel grass is a crucial way station for those that exit out the northern branch of the Skeena (the waterway off the right side of the image above); studies indicate 2-8x more salmon enter the ocean here than in other areas to the south; by some accounts, 90% of the Skeena salmon run comes through here. “It is absolutely clear that Lelu Island is the worst location for such a facility,” says Dimitry Lisitsyn, a Russian biologist who has seen the effects of oil and gas development in his country.

The companies behind the projects are making efforts to minimize disturbance of the seabed by building a raised pier, jetty, and suspension bridge and will fund the establishment of new seagrass beds nearby, with a goal of doubling the number of young salmon being supported—though similar habitat-creation projects have a spotty success rate.  Yet even if they do keep a light physical footprint and avoid creating new sediments that would damage the eelgrass beds, the ships coming into both of the new ports will change the acoustic habitat irrevocably.

Alexander Vedenev, head of the Ocean Noise Laboratory at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that noise levels from the plant and ships will be audible to young salmon out to about 3km away; some young fish will avoid such sound levels or be startled away with the approach of a ship, while those who linger are likely to experience higher than normal stress levels.  Both stress and reduced feeding time can affect long-term survival rates; the worst-case scenario is an abandonment of this crucial feeding ground. The current Ridley Terminals—and shipping lanes serving the other Prince Rupert ports—are just beyond the 3km range, while the new Prince Rupert LNG facility will be 2km from the edge of the Bank, and the Pacific Northwest LNG facility is right on its edge, thus flooding the entire Bank with noise.

Lelu locationWEB

So here we have a stretch of wild and beautiful coast, already burdened by significant shipping noise and facing the prospect of many other proposed ports, including a big one at Kitimat, in the lower right of the above image.  Now, they want to extend the already-developed stretch of coastline right down to the very edge of an established critical habitat for salmon, building a jetty over the eelgrass itself and dredging a pier area off its outer fringes.  This is indeed adding clear injury to an already-existing insult of prime oceanic habitat where the bulk of the Skeena’s salmon travel to and from the sea.  How much is enough, folks?  Yes, yes, I suppose we could just consider that stretch of coast south of Prince Rupert to be a sacrifice zone; why not extend it right to the lip of the estuary?  And I don’t know the area well enough to say with certainty that the salmon can’t find other areas to feed as they make their initial foray from the inland waters of their birth and out into the wild unknown of the seas….but I can easily look at that map above and appreciate the incredible beauty of such a big, wild river, pouring through the mountains from headwaters deep in the heart of British Columbia.  Why would we want to desecrate its mouth?

Ocean listening stations sprouting around US

Bioacoustics, Default, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

NOAA NRS_Stations_plus Cordell BankA new network of long-term acoustic monitoring stations is being deployed by NOAA-funded researchers in ocean waters from Massachusetts to the Arctic and Samoa. The Ocean Noise Reference Station (ONRS) Network represents the next step in data collection for NOAA, which has increased its focus on ocean noise in recent years.

Agencies, researchers, and NGOs are all concerned about the effects of chronic moderate noise on whales, seals, and fish (along with crustaceans and even eggs and larvae).  NOAA’s ocean noise mapping project is a big step forward, but it’s largely based on modeling of known ship and seismic survey activity.  Actual recordings made at sea by various researchers serve as “ground-truthing” for these models; early indications have been that the models are pretty good, usually within 5-10dB of actual recorded levels.

The ONRS network takes acoustic monitoring another step forward by deploying identical equipment in many regions, thus collecting “consistent and comparable multi-year acoustic data sets covering all major regions of the U.S.”  In addition to getting a better idea of regional differences (and consistencies), researchers will be investigating “how the ‘soundscapes’ at each of these sites changes, i.e. does it become noisier, are there more or less biological sounds, and is there a dramatic shift in the species present?”  All this will feed into NOAA’s ten-year effort to develop an Ocean Noise Strategy.

cordellThe most recent deployment took place this fall at the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast near San Francisco (it’s not even on the maps on the NOAA site yet, though I added it above as NRS11).  The hydrophone deployment mission (right) received substantial funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), along with the ongoing NOAA support for data collection and analysis.  Cordell Bank is one of the richest foraging grounds for marine mammals, thanks to an upwelling of cold water that attracts a wide range of species to feed.  At the same time, many of the thousands of ships traveling from Asia to ports in San Francisco Bay and further south along the California coast pass close enough that their “acoustic footprint” extends into the Sanctuary.  This can, at the very least, make it harder for whales or fish to hear each other as well as they’re used to, limiting the area over which they can communicate and causing them to raise their voices.  There are also indication that some species expend energy avoiding moderate noise, and that feeding and perhaps mating can be temporarily disrupted.  Most pernicious may be the possibility that living in elevated noise can increase physiological stress, triggering “a suite of negative effects,” according to one of the researchers.

Other research efforts are also adding to our understanding of the effects of shipping noise.  In Canada, Port Metro Vancouver recently deployed a hydrophone to examine the underwater noise from container ships headed into its facilities.  3000 such vessels traverse the waters each year, along with even more ferry transits and various recreational boats.  It’s part of the Port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program. One of its most interesting goals is to zero in on ships that may be unusually loud and in need of some maintenance:

The hope is to establish baseline information to track noise levels and to identify noise levels from specific ships. The results could lead to simple mitigation measures such as hull and propeller cleaning, shore-based financial incentives, and information for regulatory agencies and for naval architects to build quieter ships.

Here’s some more from the researchers on that project.

And in the Bering Sea, acoustic monitoring is providing important baseline data on marine mammal presence, which will play into any future oil and gas development, as well as the potential for global shipping to extend into Arctic regions as polar ice melts:

“This passive acoustic monitoring technique allows us to detect the presence of vocalizing marine mammals continuously — 24 hours per day — in all weather conditions, over periods of weeks to months, over distances of 20 to 30 kilometers, and is a proven sampling method in the waters offshore Alaska,” explained lead researcher Kathleen Stafford.

Meanwhile, eavesdropping went on during the summer and fall in the Gulf of Mexico, and plans are being made for a recording network all the way around Antarctica, in some of the world’s most remote and acoustically pristine waters.

We’re listening more closely and widely than we ever have—the next question will be, are we willing to actually do something with what we learn, and find ways to slow or roll back our relentless intrusion into the natural soundscapes of the oceans?

New paper pinpoints “opportunity sites” for acoustic habitat protection near proposed oil sands shipping route

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science, shipping No Comments »

AEI lay summary of Rob Williams, Christine Erbe, Erin Ashe, Christopher Clark. Quiet(er) marine protected areas. Marine Pollution Bulletin (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ j.marpolbul.2015.09.012  View or download paper online

Over the past decade or so, concern about ocean noise has expanded from its initial focus injuries and deaths caused by periodic loud events, such as sonar or seismic surveys.  Many researchers are now working to understand the ways that widespread, chronic shipping noise affects marine creatures’ behavior, foraging success, and stress levels.  Long-term deployment of hydrophones, sound models that extrapolate from shipping data, and slow-but-steady improvements in our knowledge of the hearing ranges and population densities of particular species have all combined to open exciting new avenues for research that can inform policy decisions in the years to come.

Using these new measurement and modeling techniques, researchers can quantify the “acoustic quality” of marine habitats.  This starts with charting the extent of shipping noise, while also considering the different auditory ranges of various species of interest.  Next, researchers map where animals tends to congregate in various seasons, to identify areas that are especially important to each species.

Of particular importance is identifying areas that have, so far, remained relatively free of shipping noise.  If at all possible, we’ll want to avoid extending the human noise footprint into these increasingly rare acoustic havens.  A research team that’s been active on Canada’s southwest coast over the past few years has been at the forefront of these techniques, and has just published a new paper that introduces the concept of “opportunity sites”—areas used by each species that are still relatively quiet, and so have high long-term conservation value.

“We tend to focus on problems in conservation biology. This was a fun study to work on, because we looked for opportunities to protect species by working with existing patterns in noise and animal distribution, and found that British Colombia offers many important habitat for whales that are still quiet,” said Dr. Rob Williams, lead author of the study. “If we think of quiet, wild oceans as a natural resource, we are lucky that Canada is blessed with globally rare pockets of acoustic wilderness. It makes sense to talk about protecting acoustic sanctuaries before we lose them.”

Below left: population density of harbor porpoise in coastal waters of British Columbia; below center: ship noise, weighted to harbor porpoise hearing; below right: opportunity sites to preserve high-quality acoustic habitat for harbor porpoises. Red indicates “highest”, blue “lowest” on all maps.

A WEB  B WEB  c WEB

These new opportunity maps make it painfully obvious how little of each species’ habitat is free of excessive shipping noise. In the example above, harbor porpoises can only find high quality acoustic habitat in a couple of small areas.  Without some concerted effort to protect these areas, they will continue to shrink.

While recognizing that many areas of critical habitat are already too loud (in particular, the entire Seattle/Vancouver region), the authors acknowledge that reducing existing noise is difficult—limiting shipping, or reducing the noise made by boats, has social and economic costs that can be hard to accept.  By contrast, the areas they’ve identified merely need to be maintained in close to their current acoustic condition, which will be far easier to accomplish.  As the authors note:

In our professional opinion, if two places are equally important to whales, with one being noisy and the other being quiet, it would be helpful to identify those areas and present that information to decision-makers. The noisy area may require mitigation, whereas the quiet area may make a more attractive or convenient candidate for critical habitat protection, either because it represents higher quality habitat to the animals or because it imposes lower economic costs to society to mitigate anthropogenic threats.

This may not mean excluding new activities from these regions, because, again in the authors’ words, “a particular marine environment could be dominated by anthropogenic underwater noise that is perceived as being loud to one species, but quiet to another.” Indeed, the opportunity maps differ for each species (though that area on the eastern side of the large island of Haida Gwaii recurs in most).  So, we will need to pay close attention to what species are present, how well they’ll hear the new noise sources, and the ways they may respond.

Generally, large ship noise is far more audible for baleen whales (humpback, fin, etc.) than for smaller toothed whales (dolphins, orca), which vocalize and hear at higher frequencies. That’s not to say that the smaller whales don’t hear big ships; they often do, and in many cases, they respond at a lower sound level than larger whales, so even if the ships are “fainter” to their ears, their reactions may be similar.

humpback opportunityWhile this paper steers clear of any sort of advocacy tone, and does no more than present the new “opportunity sites” analysis and mapping technique, the waters being studied are at the center of a contentious public policy debate.  The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the oil sands region of Alberta would dramatically increase tanker traffic to the existing deep-water port at Kitimat (yellow arrow, left).  Such an increase through Caamano Sound (red arrow, left) would threaten the humpback whale opportunity site (map, left) identified just south of the Sound.  Several years ago, co-author Rob Williams told reporters, “Caamano Sound may be one of the last chances we have on this coastline to protect an acoustically quiet sanctuary for whales. … We don’t exactly know why this area is so rich, but there are some long, narrow channels that serve as bottlenecks for food, making it easier for whales to feed.” A consortium of environmental organizations is currently challenging the Canadian government’s approval of the pipeline, claiming that the approval did not take into account the humpback recovery plan, identifying Hecate Strait (the larger area between the mainland and the large offshore island) as a critical humpback feeding ground.  The pipeline is being challenged on several fronts (including strong opposition from B.C. First Nations communities); considering acoustic habitat protection, limiting new ship traffic during the times of year when the current opportunity sites are being heavily used would seem to be the least we can do.

 

 

Navy agrees to exclusion zones for sonar, explosives training

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mapsWEBAfter being slammed by a federal judge in March, the US Navy has agreed to keep sonar training and explosives testing and training out of several biologically important areas off the California and Hawaii coasts.  This week, settlement talks with NRDC, Earthjustice, and other plaintiffs resulted in a final order, which will remain in effect through 2018, when the current round of permits expire.  This is a substantial victory for the environmental groups, the first legal affirmation of a long-standing argument that the Navy can and should keep its loudest activities out of areas where whales and other sea creatures congregate.  It’s especially notable after losing a similar case targeting the Northwest Training Range Complex last year, in which the judge ruled that the Navy had suitably considered the question of whether exclusion zones would reduce harm to animals.  This time, a different federal judge was much more amenable to the fundamental idea that the Navy can achieve its training mission without totally unfettered access to all corners of the seas.

While mid-frequency active sonar has received the most attention, recent EIS’s and permits for Navy training and testing activities have made it clear that explosives trigger the vast majority of the potential injuries and deaths, as well as a huge number of the behavioral reactions that are also of concern to environmental advocates.  This agreement totally bans in-water explosive testing and training from an area between Santa Catalina and San Nicolas Islands off southern California and from nearly all Hawaiian near-shore areas (the exception being the waters between Hawaii and Maui).  Mid-frequency active sonar “major training exercises” will be excluded from the two of the four zones around Hawaii island and a zone west of Molokai; while both major exercises and small-group or single-boat sonar are banned in a nearshore area off San Diego during the five months each year when Blue whales are present.  Meanwhile, sonar activity will continue as part of large training exercises several times per year in other nearshore Hawaiian waters; waters farther offshore and between the specified exclusion zones will also remain available for sonar and explosives training and testing.

UPDATE, 11/13/15: Unsurprisingly, this recent court ruling did not derail the ongoing finalization of a similar 5-year permit for Navy training in another area, off the Pacific Northwest coast of WA, OR, and northern CA.  NMFS has signaled its approval of Navy plans there; it was a similar NMFS action that triggered the lawsuit and recent settlement in the southern California/Hawaii training range.  It appears that while there are some bombing and live fire exercises planned in the PacNW training range, those activities may be less extensive or intense; no mortalities are predicted to occur.

“This settlement proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Marsha Green, president of the Ocean Mammal Institute, in a statement. “The Navy can meet its training and testing needs and, at the same time, provide significant protections to whales and dolphins by limiting the use of sonar and explosives in vital habitat.”

It’s not clear how often the exclusion zones have been actively used for these now-banned exercises in the past; the Naval Training Ranges include vast expanses of ocean around Hawaii and off the California coast. We do know that four dolphins died in 2011 after an explosive exercise in the area between the two Californian islands, and presumably routine smaller-unit sonar training has ranged through some of the near-shore waters now off-limits.  The exclusion zones range from 15-30 miles wide around Hawaiian shorelines; the San Diego exclusion zone extends about 15 miles offshore and along 30 miles of coast, while the offshore area between the two Californian islands is nearly 60 miles long and around 15 miles wide.  Within these areas, injuries and deaths should now be generally avoided (though the Navy contends that such incidents are already extremely rare; see this post for a deep dive into the question of the estimated “take” numbers).  However, the large numbers of behavioral reactions, or Level B takes, are unlikely to be reduced much at all by these changes, since they occur at much greater distances (70% of Level B takes occur at 25-50 miles).  Indeed, even the exclusion zones themselves may well experience sound levels high enough to trigger behavioral changes when exercises take place in nearby waters; however, the most disruptive behavioral reactions, such as interruptions in feeding or mating, or disruptions of mother-calf interactions, should be reduced significantly within the exclusion zones.  And, this settlement could set the stage for more exclusion zones in the next round of 5-year impact assessments and permits covering training ranges in waters along most parts of the US coastline.

Seabed mining inches forward

Human impacts, Ocean 1 Comment »

The new frontier for mining is the bottom of the ocean.  When done in relatively shallow waters (500m or less), it’s known as seabed mining (SBM); in areas where the seafloor is deeper, it’s called deep sea mining (DSM).  In the past five years, the International Seabed Authority, a UN agency that oversees commercial activity in international waters, has issued 27 exploration licenses, each good for 15 years.  So far, no mines are active in deep waters, but that’s likely to change soon:

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If you’d like to get up to speed on what’s going on in the field, this resource page from the Ocean Foundation is a great place to start. It includes links to major agency, industry, and NGO players and to several reports of interest. Noise is considered a significant impact from SBM and DSM, though seafloor habitat disturbance (both physical disruption and the addition of light to areas normally very dark) and plumes of sediment in water being returned from the processing ship above are the primary impacts.

Mining at sea often has a much smaller social and ecological footprint than terrestrial mining; among other factors, many seabed mineral reserves have a higher concentration of the minerals of interest than those on land, especially after centuries of mining the best ores.  Still, one common target for ocean mining is deep sea vents, which are biologically rich thanks to their concentration of minerals and temperature differentials.  We’re still in the early years of grappling with how to assess the significance of the impacts on seafloor habitats.  Moving forward, we need to be considering what proportion of each regional habitat type will be allowed to be disrupted, and, as ever, we should be particularly cautious about introducing industrial activity into areas that are still relatively free of other human activity (this is especially important in regards to noise).  See previous AEI coverage of this issue here.

Oil industry noise headed for arctic waters

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

Shell Oil is gearing up to do the first new exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska.  The project has been in the pipeline for years, and has faced numerous legal challenges (mostly regarding the danger of a spill and climate imperatives) and logistical snafus (the most extreme being a drill ship that ran aground).  Just last month, a consortium of environmental groups filed a suit challenging the most recent permits; there has yet to be a ruling.  The expansion of oil and gas development from Alaska’s north slope to offshore waters will create a marked increase in human noise in an ocean region that is currently relatively free of our intrusions.  Exploration leases have been sold in both the Chukchi Sea (left below) and Beaufort Sea (right below).

BeaufortChukchiLease2008WEBlg

Earlier this year, the Obama administration officially put some areas in these waters off limits, but a close inspection of the maps presented then reveal that virtually none of these areas were planned for development when the above map was created in 2008; the exclusion zones appear to match the near-shore areas excluded above (one exception: a small portion of the Chukchi zone is now off-limits).

Noise concerns extend far beyond the drilling itself, or even the seismic surveys that take place prior to drilling and during the life of the project.  The drill rigs come along with a support fleet of 30 other boats and several aircraft, promising a steady din in the area.  “In the Arctic, I can’t emphasize how novel an activity this is,” says NRDC attorney Giulia Good Stefani. “It really is a whole new level of disturbance for an area already experiencing rapid change and stress.” Concerns extend from whales to walruses, seals, and polar bears.

A wide array of ongoing research is underway, aiming to characterize the current soundscape in arctic waters. Read the rest of this entry »

Seabed mining: is 35 miles too close to whale nursery?

Ocean, Ocean energy No Comments »

As regular readers may know, I really dislike the expansion of mining into the sea. Not content to be filling the seas with the sounds of our ships and seismic survey airguns traversing the surface, we seem intent on extending our industrial footprint and sound-making onto the seafloor.  The oil and gas industry is already there, with its “subsea processing” facilities, as covered extensively by our friends at Ocean Conservation Research.  And now, here come the miners:

dredge boatWhat’s not to hate about this? And indeed, I was quickly riled up by a proposal to mine phosphate near a Gray whale birthing lagoon in Baja California, Mexico.  An article on The Ecologist’s website stressed the mine’s threat to San Ignacio Lagoon, the southernmost of two lagoons where over 2500 whales arrive each winter to give birth and nurse their young.  The mining will take place in five areas within a 350 square zone, 12-21 miles from shore, and roughly 35-70 miles from the mouth of San Ignacio (inlet in pink on map below; mining area in grey).

area mapSpurred by this article, I dug into the project’s environmental assessment to get a sense of how extensive the noise impact of this new mining operation would be.  And while there may well be serious issues with returning sediment to the ocean after separation on boats above, direct effects on local animal populations living in the mining zone, and other environmental impacts from the unproven mining techniques to be employed, I have to say that I was surprised at how modest the noise will be. Read the rest of this entry »

2011 stranding blamed on Royal Navy bomb explosions

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean No Comments »

bomb site and kyleIn July 2011, 70 pilot whales were spotted in the shallow Kyle of Durness on the north coast of Scotland; as the tide went out, at least 39 were stranded.  Quick efforts by locals and live-stranding groups managed to refloat 20 animals, but 19 perished.  This month, a report commissioned by the UK’s governing agency, DEFRA, concluded that a series of bomb-disposal explosions were the most likely cause of the stranding.  It’s a good reminder that much of the potential impact on wildlife from Navy exercises is from traditional ordinance, rather than sonar.

While pilot whales are relatively common around Scotland, and there have been numerous strandings through the years, it’s unusual that they would venture into such a shallow, tidal bay.  It seems likely that the pod was in the area relatively near shore (either following food, or transiting between feeding locations) when several bombs were exploded on the day before the stranding (yellow pointer on image).  Navigational error (perhaps caused by hearing impairment) left them in the mouth of the bay (red pointer), 3-5 miles away, rather than offshore; the strandings had just begun when the final bomb was exploded the next day, which likely drove more animals into the shallows.

The report suggests that some whales may well have been close enough to suffer temporary or permanent hearing damage.  In the most damning finding, it appears clear that monitoring for nearby animals was cursory at best, done only from small inflatable boats: Read the rest of this entry »

Active sonars continue to proliferate; India is powering up next

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Atlas-Elektronik-to-Supply-Sonar-for-Royal-Thai-Navys-New-Frigate.This week the Indian Navy confirmed its purchase of six low-frequency Active Towed Array Sonar (ACTAS) units, for use in tracking Chinese subs in the Indian Ocean.  With a stated detection range of 60km (37mi), it appears that this system puts out far less sound than low frequency systems used by the US (SURTASS LFAS) or the British (Sonar 2087), both of which are effective to at least 100 nautical miles, and can be detected at much greater distances.  It is remarkably hard to find information about the proliferation of these systems; the German-made ACTAS system is presumably being used elsewhere as well, while the UK Sonar 2087 is deployed on several UK Navy ships, and was recently also purchased by Chilean Navy.  So far, the US Navy has plans to outfit 4 ships with its SURTASS LFA system, and it is used regularly in the western Pacific, monitoring Chinese and North Korean activity. While environmental groups continue to challenge US deployment of LFAS and to add biological safeguards to training programs using mid-frequency active sonar (see AEI coverage of both), these and similar systems continue to spread into waters around the world.

Pipeline expansion to add 700 tanker transits in already-saturated southern BC waters

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Bioacousticians and marine advocates have been closely following plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia, which would greatly increase ship traffic in some coastal waterways that are relatively quiet so far; see previous AEInews coverage.  But another pipeline project, farther along in the permitting process, could push the already stressed waters of southern BC and northern Washington to the acoustic breaking point.  The Trans Mountain Pipeline, built in 1953 and expanded several times since then, is gearing up to nearly triple its capacity and make adaptations that will allow heavy tar sands oil to be moved to the Pacific coast for shipment to Asia.

379-kitimatmapWEBThe expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline would have 75% of the capacity of the proposed Keystone KL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, so it has triggered active resistance on similar climate change grounds as Keystone.  At the same time, ocean advocates are stressing the cumulative impact of the additional 720 tanker transits that would occur in already-busy waters that include critical habitats for killer whales, sea lions, and other species.  At this point, most of the additional capacity is targeted for Burnaby, BC (increasing monthly tanker arrivals from 5 to 34), though the pipeline also serves terminals in northern Washington state. (Some of the current capacity is refined and used in North America, but virtually all of the increased capacity will be shipped overseas; thus the tanker traffic will increase 7-fold despite the smaller capacity increase.)

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has just released a review of the Trans Mountain proposal, which is currently being considered by the National Energy Board (NEB), and finds it lacking, saying it contains “insufficient information” to adequately assess the threats posed both by underwater noise and ship strikes. “The assessment considers noise from a single project-related ship, without taking into account the additive and cumulative effects of existing noise,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada concludes.

Marine advocates second that concern.  Margot Venton, a staff lawyer with Ecojustice, stresses that “The critical habitat is basically as noisy as it can be. We need to make it quieter.” Misty MacDuffee, a fisheries ecologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said anything that impedes the ability of whales to feed is a serious concern. “It’s just the growing din,” she said. “They are trying to [communicate and hunt] in an increasingly loud environment.” (Thanks to the Globe and Mail for their coverage and all these quotes.)

The NEB review is slated to be concluded by July; the federal government will then take six months to consider the NEB’s recommendation and make a final decision.  If approved, construction could begin in 2016 and be completed the following year.

UPDATE, 7/14/16: The NEB has recommended that the pipeline be approved, despite the likelihood that additional ship traffic will saturate the acoustic environment to the point that ship noise is present in some areas nearly 100% of the time (currently 85%).  Transmountain will need to meet 157 conditions, but they’re confident that will be achievable.  The final stage of the approval process is a final decision from the Canadian government, which is expected by the end of this year.

Acoustic monitoring increases in US northeast waters

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science No Comments »

Several independent research projects that are listening to fish and whales in waters along the coast from New Jersey to Maine have joined together as the NorthEast Passive Acoustic sensing Network (NEPAN).  This map shows the location of the various research programs that will be taking place through 2017:

NEPAN_labels_MT

The NEPAN website offers a good overview of the aims of each of these projects.  Of particular interest is a real-time buoy deployed near a Coast Guard gunnery range off Rhode Island, which will help the Coast Guard to avoid initiating live-explosive exercises when any of the few remaining critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are in the area.  The array of long-term recorders along the edge of the continental shelf will also provide some key new information on seasonal presence of many whale species, as well as helping clarify how far offshore they tend to be during migration (again, especially crucial information for the right whales).

Scientists object to new Atlantic oil/gas exploration plans

Bioacoustics, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

A letter from 75 leading bio-acoustics researchers urges President Obama to derail current plans to open much of the US eastern seaboard to oil and gas exploration and development.  Last year, the Department of Interior opened the door to new seismic surveys from Delaware to Georgia, which will clarify which areas of the continental shelf are most promising as drilling sites; these could begin as soon as this year or next.  So far, nine applications have been filed for surveys, all 50 miles or more offshore.  In January of this year, Interior announced plans to issue drilling leases beginning in 2017, with the initial five-year leasing period targeting roughly the same region (UPDATE, 3/15/16: Interior cancels lease planning); in conjunction with opening this area, development was banned in some Alaskan waters (small areas off the north slope and a larger area in SW Alaska).

map All this has spurred much public outcry, and in March an impressive array of ocean scientists from dozens of universities and research organizations around the world took the unprecedented step of sending a letter to President Obama expressing deep concern about the acoustic impacts of these plans. “The magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain,” say these researchers (see the full letter).

New dynamic maps from NOAA’s new Cetacean & Sound Mapping project indicate that these right whales use the southeast coast intensively in January and February, and are present along much of the coast in March and April moving north, and November and December heading south.  Only during the months of June-October are these whales mostly in northern waters away from the region currently being targeted.  Of course, other marine species are present year-round.

The Department of Interior suggests that since all activity will be more than 50 miles offshore, it should not interfere with commercial or recreational fishing, or near-shore areas of critical habitat; however, airgun sounds are often audible at much greater distances than that.  Energy companies also stress that heavy seismic survey activity in the Gulf of Mexico has co-existed for decades with both commercial and recreational fishing activity.

While initial push-back has largely been focused on the seismic surveys, which use pulses of loud sound to image deep below the seafloor (here’s a good explainer), the longer-term acoustic footprint of oil development is likely to also be significant. Ocean Conservation Research has been focusing on this for several years, tracking the new generation of seafloor processing facilities that are making deep-water development possible:

Much of the technology that makes deepwater drilling possible hinges on creating pre-refineries on the sea floor. These include seafloor separators, reinjection pumps, multi-phase pumps and other equipment all operating under extreme pressures and often very high (and noisy) differential pressures. Additionally these deepwater operations are typically performed from dynamically stabilized drill ships and “semi-submersible” platforms that are always churning away.

Listening array documenting rare natural quiet on BC coast, in face of development proposals

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PacificWild, a British Columbian environmental organization, has deployed a network of 6 hydrophones in waters along the northern coast of that province.  This region of offshore islands and dramatic forested fjords is relatively wild, and quiet, especially as compared to the shipping-intensive region in southern BC around Vancouver Island and nearby Puget Sound in Washington State. But development proposals (including tar sands and other oil and gas ports) may mean up to 3000 supertankers per year will pass through these northern waters, bringing an expansion of the acoustic smog that already blankets most of the world’s oceans.

farshot      closeshot

Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild stresses that “Most of the species that are acoustically sensitive rely on a quiet ocean in order to communicate, in order to forage, in order to survive here,” and notes that the hydrophone array will gather crucial baseline acoustic data that can help inform management decisions to be made in the next few years.

Live streams of the hydrophones are available, though at most times, there’s not all that much going on; a collection of highlights, as well as streams, is available on this page. To learn more about the project, see PacificWild’s website, or take a look at this brief video (see it here if it doesn’t load for you).

Navy, NMFS slammed by judge over training permits

News, Ocean, Science, Sonar No Comments »

The Navy and NMFS suffered a stunning legal defeat over the latest 5-year EIS and permits governing training exercises in Hawaii, California, and waters in between.  In marked contrast to other recent court rulings, which found fault with some procedural issues but largely backed the Navy and NMFS’s collaborative planning results (see detailed AEI summaries of 2014 rulings on the Pacific Northwest training range and global low-frequency sonar permits), US District Court Judge Susan Moki Olway vehemently rejected several key aspects of the permitting for the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing (“HSTT”) Study Area. (Note: while sonar has been the focus of most public concern, these trainings also involve live ammunition, explosions, etc., that are responsible for most of the anticipated behavioral disruptions and nearly all the injuries and deaths.)

120511bighsttregionWEB

The primary target of the legal challenges was the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which issues the permits (Letters of Authorization) and the Biological Opinion that underly the permit conditions and take numbers. The Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was not directly challenged (a Supreme Court ruling has left the Navy with broad discretion and little room for legal challenges), but the EIS is accepted as sufficient by NMFS, and Judge Olway made a point of chastising NMFS for being too quick to simply adopt much of the Navy’s reasoning about both the impact on animal populations and the practicality (or lack thereof) of keeping training activities out of some areas.

The ruling seems to call for a fairly substantial revision of the EIS, the Biological Opinion, and the take numbers authorized by the permits; still, it may be likely that these documents can indeed be revised to fix the shortcomings identified by the Court, without substantially reducing the training activities being planned.  Also, an appeal to a higher court is possible, or likely, given the broad implications of the ruling.

UPDATE, September 2015: As it turned out, the Navy and NRDC negotiated a settlement, adding a few exclusion zones for the duration of the current five-year authorization. It remains to be seen how the larger issues raised by the ruling may affect the next round of Navy EIS and NMFS authorizations.

Nonetheless, this ruling is the most fundamental challenge to the current Navy and NMFS planning process since the original lawsuits that helped trigger the Navy to begin producing EISs and NMFS to issue permits.  Among the key issues that were successfully challenged:

Read the rest of this entry »

No-go zone proposal splits orca advocates

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A proposal to exclude whale-watching boats from nearshore waters off San Juan Island in Puget Sound has been revived by a local orca protection group, Orca Relief Citizens Alliance.  A similar plan was proposed by NOAA in 2009-11,  but was abandoned after push-back from whale-watching groups, with a speed limit introduced instead.  In recent years, the population of resident orcas has fallen to a 30-year low, and is down to 77 after 4 deaths during 2014, including the first new calf to be born in two years.

“This is only an immediate solution to a dire situation,” said Orca Relief Executive Director Bruce Stedman. “When salmon levels are so low, the whales are very stressed when searching for food. Pursuit from whale watching boats causes more stress.”

However, the proposed “no-go” zone contains just 0.5% of the resident orcas’ federally designated critical habitat and is heavily used by orcas for just a few weeks a year,  so the idea been criticized by both whale watching groups and some orca advocates, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. “The no-go zone is an absurd waste of concern and a futile effort legally,” Balcomb said. “The whales will go where the chinook salmon are in abundance, and it is these fish that should receive our concern.”