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NJ sues Feds over academic seismic survey planned for July

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Seismic Surveys Comments Off

The State of New Jersey has gone to federal court to block a seismic survey planned for this month fifteen miles offshore.  The survey, funded by the National Science Foundation, received its final permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service last week; the permit (similar to those issued routinely for oil and gas exploration or Navy sonar training) allows the sound from the airguns to incidentally harass marine mammals, including the possibility of some permanent injuries.  The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is aiming to stop the surveys from commencing in the next week or so; they claim that this is a poor time of year to introduce potentially harmful or harassing sounds, that the surveys could disrupt local fisheries for scallop, flounder, and squid, and that the National Science Foundation should have undertaken a more comprehensive public comment and environmental assessment process.

UPDATE, 8/14/14: Mechanical issues have sidelined the survey for this summer; the National Science Foundation plans to carry out the survey next year instead, while local activists vow to push for more thorough analysis and public input.

LangsethWEBThe survey, by Columbia University’s research vessel the Marcus Langseth (left) would examine seafloor sediment, as part of research looking at how climate change has affected river runoff and deposition over the past sixty million years.  Some critics, though, seem to be conflating the purpose here with a broader initiative underway to open Atlantic waters for new seismic surveys exploring for oil and gas; those plans have stirred controversy in states up and down the eastern seaboard.

“We believe the timing of this program will be detrimental to various marine species that migrate and breed off the New Jersey coast and will negatively impact the commercial fishing industry that relies heavily on these resources,” said New Jersey DEP commissioner Bob Martin.  Similarly, Bob Schoelkopf of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, was quoted as saying: “Right now, bottlenose dolphins are mating and giving birth off the coast of New Jersey. May and June are the birthing periods. They are totally dependent on their parents to provide nursing for the first two to four years of their life, and if the mother, for some reason, cannot catch fish to eat, she can’t produce milk.”  It’s not obvious from these statements whether there is another time of year that either would suggest for a survey such as this.

Meanwhile, the Asbury Park Press spoke to the project’s lead scientist, Rutgers geology professor Greg Mountain, likens the technology to medical sonograms, and says it will cap years of investigations using sea floor corings to recover ancient sediment. The goal is to understand climate and sea level changes over millions of years, information that will be critical to foreseeing future sea level change along the East Coast, Mountain says.

[Click through for more info on seismic surveys in general, and AEI’s quick take on this situation]

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Airguns infect summer soundscapes in remote polar Atlantic Ocean

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys Comments Off

AEI lay summary of:
Holger Klinck, Sharon L. Nieukirk, David K. Mellinger, Karolin Klinck, Haruyoshi Matsumoto, and Robert P. Dziak. Seasonal presence of cetaceans and ambient noise levels in polar waters of the North Atlantic. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. EL176, 132 (3), September 2012.

I somehow missed this study when it was published a couple years ago, but the findings are so striking that I can’t resist turning back the clock to cover it.  Researchers from Oregon State University and NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory analyzed data from two hydrophones deployed for a year in some of the most remote areas of the very northern Atlantic Ocean, and found seismic survey airgun sounds to be a dominant presence, audible for 95% of each day for five months a year (and over half the hours for two more months).

Klinck map and 3 spect350Luckily for the fin whales who are the most populous marine mammal in these remote waters east of northern Greenland, they tend to show up toward the end of the summer airgun season, and concentrate their polar activity in the winter, when the airguns go silent.  But blue whales and a relatively few sperm whales like to be there in late summer, and must co-exist with the steady rumble of airgun sounds, which increase the ambient sound levels by an average of 5-10dB, and up to 20dB.  By contrast, the roar of storm-driven winter waves adds up to 12dB, and the calls of thousands of fin whales add up to 10dB.

The authors don’t speculate about the location of the seismic surveys being heard in the region, which lies well north of the Arctic Circle (the two sites are between 75 and 80 degrees north latitude; the Arctic Circle is at 66.5).  But it’s a straight, if rather long, shot from the North Sea oil fields between the UK and Scandinavia, with Norway’s offshore arctic developments a bit closer. I suspect that the offshore concentrations of red between Norway and the study sites are likely active oil fields, with heightened airgun activity; the dark red North Sea hosts one of the world’s highest concentrations of ongoing seismic surveys.

Shipping global graphic WEB Polar Atlantic CROP copy

What’s especially discouraging about these findings is that this is one of the increasingly rare parts of the world’s oceans that is largely spared the scourge of shipping noise.  The more northern site lies close to a minor shipping lane between Norway and its remote arctic island outposts, but compared to the din of ships in most of the temperate latitudes (where shipping noise has roughly doubled in intensity each decade since the 1950s), this should be—or couldbe an acoustic refuge. The map to the right shows the study areas, on the sparse fringes of the red cloud of global shipping routes. (Ed. note: Fish, which are not as wide-ranging as whales, and often use low-frequency sounds, are also likely affected by the increased background noise caused by airguns.)

The whales who visit seasonally seem to be putting up with the additional noise from seismic surveys; hundreds of blue whales are heard during 60-80% of hours in August and September, even as airguns continue to be heard nearly 100% of hours; the newly-arriving fin whales are heard close to half the time in those months, increasing to 70-80% of hours as their numbers climb to an estimated 6000 in mid-winter. Of course, at close range the whale calls are much louder than the distant airguns; but the steady hum of airguns at 5-10dB above what would otherwise be the background sound level can make it difficult for whales to hear their brethren across the dozens or hundreds of miles that they might otherwise communicate. As the authors note: “(D)uring the summer months. . . reverberation effects associated with the propagation of airgun signals often caused a continuous series of transient sounds.” 

The authors note that recordings made in the early 1970s show winter-time sound levels similar to those recorded in this study; that study, however, did not find the summertime increase that is now associated with the distant seismic surveys.

Navy (mostly) prevails in LFA lawsuit

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Sonar Comments Off

Eighteen months after a lawsuit challenged the latest 5-year authorization for the US Navy’s SURTASS-LFA low-frequency active sonar system, Federal Judge Elizabeth Laporte ruled in the Navy’s favor on nearly all counts.  And last week, the Navy agreed to do a Supplemental Environmental Impact statement that will address the key point on which she found in favor of the plaintiffs.

As reported here earlier, the Navy was authorized to deploy LFA sonar on four ships, though initially only two were so equipped, both generally deployed in the western Pacific, monitoring North Korean and Chinese vessels (in 2009, their presence spurred a multi-month spat with China). The legal challenge addressed here, filed in late 2012 by the NRDC and several allies, targeted both the Navy’s EIS and the National Marine Fisheries Service’s five-year incidental take regulations.  In her ruling last March, Judge Laporte sided with the Navy and NMFS on most counts.  Most centrally, Judge Laporte ruled that the relatively limited set of Offshore Biologically Important Areas (OBIAs) that should be avoided by LFA sonar was justified by the science, and was not, to use the legal-standard terms, arbitrary and capricious (by contrast, NRDC charged that the 22 OBIAs were “literally a drop in a bucket” within the 50% of the earth’s oceans open to LFAS deployment). In addition, several specific ways in which the Navy and NMFS limited OBIA protections were ruled valid, including using only seasonal OBIAs to protect sperm whales, and omitting harbor porpoises and beaked whales from OBIA protections because the sonar’s frequencies do not overlap their hearing ranges.  And, in several areas, Laporte also rejected claims that the Navy failed to use the most recent available evidence (this is a new angle of attack, one that Laporte showed some openness to in a related suit on the Navy’s mid-frequency active sonar plans).  In addition, she ruled that the Navy and NMFS did not fail to consider alternatives to LFAS, and did not fail to “take a hard look” at effects on non-marine-mammal species such as fish.

However, in one area, Laporte found that the Navy’s EIS fell short: it failed to update its stock estimates for bottlenose dolphins around Hawaii based on a new study (released after the initial impact assessments were done, but before completion of the final EIS) that showed more bottlenose dolphins in waters around Hawaii than previously estimated (two exercises with the Pacific LFA ships occur near Hawaii).  Thus, the Navy’s impact estimates, using the old numbers, are too low.  In a final agreement approved by Laporte in late May, the Navy agreed to re-run its estimates in a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, to be completed by February 2015; if past is prologue, the Navy will run its new numbers and find that the impact is still negligible.  However, the LFA plan aims to impact no more than 12% of any regional stock of each species, and it may not yet be clear whether the new numbers will push impacts above that threshold (the earlier estimates peaked at 6% of the stock of Hawaiian bottlenose dolphins in offshore pelagic waters). 

If that’s not enough legal reporting for ya, then click over to this post from January 2014 detailing the most recent round of lawsuits, filed against new 5-year permits for Navy training areas in US offshore waters.

IMO adopts shipping noise guidelines, adding to ISO measurement standards

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, shipping Comments Off

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has adopted the first-ever comprehensive guidelines on shipping noise.  The voluntary guidelines mark the first step toward a longer-term goal of bringing noise factors into planning for both ship design and shipping routes.

ShippingContainerSFBay 250This marks the successful completion of a six-year process, largely spearheaded by NOAA, the US Coast Guard, and their German counterparts at IMO. The US Chamber of Shipping, a trade organization, has also been engaged from the start.  While the guidelines are voluntary, leading some observers to question their value, it is expected that many key players will begin to work with the guidelines in coming years. In general, the shipping industry is far more willing to design new ships to be quieter, than to retrofit older ships. Ed. note: one fascinating insight from the early IMO process was that global shipping noise may be dominated by relatively few unusually loud ships in each size class. 

PacNoise475

In this ocean noise map created by NOAA, the darkest areas represent noise about 60dB above natural ambient levels

As summarized by NRDC, the new guidelines mark a milestone in ocean noise awareness on several fronts, as they:

  • recognize that shipping noise can have short-term and long-term impacts on marine life, especially on marine mammals;
  • call for measurement of shipping noise according to objective, available international standards;
  • identify computational models for determining effective quieting measures;
  • provide guidance for designing quieter ships and for reducing noise from existing ships, especially by minimizing the roar produced by ship propellers, in a process known as cavitation; and
  • advise owners and operators on how to minimize noise through ship operations and maintenance, such as by polishing ship propellers to remove fouling and surface roughness.

UPDATE, 6/4/14: In 2012, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) developed formal standards for the measurement of underwater sound from ships.  ISO standards provide detailed specifications that assure consistency in what is being measured (frequencies, reporting metrics), and how (distance from sound source, conditions, etc.).  Combined with the IMO guidelines, shipping companies now have the tools they need to provide clear information on the noise footprint of their vessels and the design choices they make to reduce noise; although neither the IMO nor ISO specify specific limits or targets for ship noise, they provide standardized ways of reporting on the noise of ships.  RINA Services, which provides a wide range of independent marine certifications, has just added a new voluntary notation, DOLPHIN, that combines the IMO and ISO reporting standards, and gives shipowners a third-party certification option to specify commercial vessels which have implemented solutions to minimize radiated underwater noise.

Fantastic ocean noise presentation from Leila Hatch of NOAA

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, Ocean, Science Comments Off

Earlier this month, Leila Hatch, one of NOAA’s leading experts on ocean acoustics and a long-time researcher in and around Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, presented an hour-long talk on ocean noise.  It’s been archived on the Open Channels website, and is available for streaming and download on Vimeo.  

It’s by far the best introduction I’ve seen to this wide-ranging topic, including some basic information on ocean noise, along with a good summary of ongoing work at NOAA to map ocean noise and to learn more about how shipping noise, in particular, can impinge on whales’ communication space. Highly recommended!!

Listening to our Sanctuaries: Understanding and Reducing the Impacts of Underwater Noise in Marine Protected Areas from OpenChannels on Vimeo.

Deepwater Wind agrees to limit activities to protect Right whales

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean energy Comments Off

Deepwater Wind, which recently won the first-ever competitive lease auction for US offshore wind, has signed an agreement with a consortium of environmental organizations that affirms its intention to minimize potential impacts on critically endangered Right whales. The wind farm’s location, in Rhode Island Sound, is host to foraging Right whales each spring; the agreement delays any pile-driving activity until after May 1, when whales have generally moved north.  In addition, pile driving later in the year will take place only during the day, when any lingering whales can be more easily seen.

Deepwater2 WEB

The agreement marks an important step forward in marine conservation, with wind energy developers agreeing to key provisions that the Navy and oil and gas exploration companies have resisted: changing their operational schedule to avoid times of particular biological importance in a given area, and agreeing to limit loud noise-making activities to daylight hours.

The current agreement covers pre-construction activities, including pile-driving five foundations, for meteorological towers and perhaps test turbines (the press release does not specify). The Deepwater ONE wind farm will ultimately be home to 150-200 turbines; construction of that phase of the project will create a significant noise footprint, and we will hope that the company agrees to continued protective conditions at that time. A similar agreement by Deepwater for its smaller 5-turbine Block Island Wind Farm does cover the actual construction period; that press release does not mention daylight-only construction, but does delay construction until May. However, a broader agreement between environmental groups and several wind developers does include a provision precluding pile driving at night or in heavy fog; one hopes that this good-faith agreement will indeed be reflected in actual final operational plans. 

NATO sonar exercises, strandings in Crete

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Sonar Comments Off

While recent years have seen an apparent reduction in the number of sonar-related strandings, one of the world’s hot spots for such tragedies saw a rash of strandings in recent days.  Two different stranding events occurred along the southern shore of Crete, the first involving 5-7 Cuvier’s beaked whales along a 16km stretch of coast, and the second occurring a few days later and 48km east, where three members of the same species came ashore.  In both cases, many of the animals were refloated and returned to sea (and unknown fates), while four whales died, including a fetus that was apparently close to term.

CRETE web

 

A NATO naval exercise, Operation Noble Dina, is ongoing in the area, involving US, Greek and Israeli forces. This part of the Mediterranean has been the site of several previous strandings, as noted by NRDC’s Michael Jasney:

For Greece, none of this is new. In 1996 and again in 1997, dozens of beaked whales of the same species turned up along the Peloponnesian coast; in 2011, they stranded on the island of Corfu as well as the east coast of Italy, across the Ionian Sea. In each case, navies were training with high-powered sonar in the area. Indeed, according to the Smithsonian Institution and International Whaling Commission, every multi-species beaked-whale mass stranding on record everywhere in the world has occurred with naval activities, usually sonar exercises, taking place in the vicinity.

One of the ongoing areas of contention between environmental advocates and the US Navy and federal regulators is whether sonar training (and naval live-fire and explosion exercises creating loud and potentially harmful noise) should be planned to avoid areas with known concentrations of marine mammals, especially those, such as beaked whales, that are especially sensitive to noise.  As it turns out, the area of this stranding is one of a large number of areas recommended as Areas of Special Concern for beaked whales by that the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS (Agreement for the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black and Mediterranean Seas, a consortium of governments in the region).  As reported by a long-time chair of its Scientific Committee, the recommendation fell on deaf ears when presented to the full ACCOBAMS meeting of the parties last year; military preparedness was the explicit reason for the rejection.

In the wake of the two stranding events, Operation Noble Dina continues, but was moved 100km south of Crete—now outside the boundary of the proposed Area of Special Concern, yet apparently still able to complete its military preparedness mission.

Virginia offshore wind developer agrees to avoid right whales for evaluation, but not for construction

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean energy, Wind turbines Comments Off

Last fall, Dominion Virginia Power won the first federal lease for developing wind power off the coast of Virginia.  As with all offshore energy and Naval activity on the east coast, one of the first environmental concerns to be raised was what measures would be taken to minimize impact on the critically endangered North Atlantic Right whale. While their population has been more or less steadily rising since 1990, with only about 400 individuals, they remain vulnerable to any negative impacts, from ship strikes to increased stress levels, which may reduce reproductive rates and success. (See NOAA’s most recent stock assessment report for details; it notes lower reproductive rates than other Right whale stocks, and concludes that the population will be negatively affected if it loses more than 0.9 whales per year to human impact.)

Turbine being boated offshoreWith all this in mind, Dominion Virginia Power’s first commitments to the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority fell far short of what many had hoped.  The company agreed to limit installation activity of test platforms (meteorological towers and preliminary test turbines) during the period when whales are most apt to be migrating past the Virginia coast, but made no such commitments about later, and much more extensive, pile-driving for hundreds of turbines in the eventual wind farm.

“We’re happy to talk” with environmental groups, said Mary C. Doswell, Dominion Resources Inc.’s senior vice president for alternative energy solutions, though she noted, “we can’t overlook the costs of compliance.”

The company said they’d minimize their first-phase activities from late November to late March.  The whales spend the summers in a large area off the coast of New England and the Canadian Maritimes, and concentrate at birthing grounds off the coast of northern Florida in winter. NOAA maintains a reduced speed zone along the mid-Atlantic coast, to protect migrating Right whales, from Nov.1 to April 30, close to two months longer than the company set aside as their cautionary season; even the speed restriction is seen by some as a potential obstacle to offshore wind data collection.

UPDATE: See also this article from last fall, which suggests that Dominion plans only to erect a 2-turbine test platform, with full-scae development of 200 or more turbines on hold until costs come down for offshore wind construction.  Some wind advocates suggest that Dominion, which has fought renewable energy initiatives in the state, secured the lease largely to prevent others from developing a large offshore capacity.

Legal challenges mount to new round of Navy training permits

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Sonar Comments Off

In December, the Navy’s current five-year plan for training and testing activities around Hawaii and off the southern California coast were approved by NOAA regulators, covering the years 2014-2018.  The approval authorized incidental takes of marine mammals, including both widespread behavioral changes and close-range injuries and some deaths, as a result of sound exposure from sonar and explosives, as well as ship strikes.

ShoupImmediately after NOAA’s approval, environmental organizations filed suit in federal court in Hawaii, and this week, other organizations filed suit in a San Francisco federal court (the Navy pushed back in a brief statement).  It’s unclear from early press coverage how much overlap there is between the two; the Hawaii suit, led by Earthjustice, initially named just NOAA, but has been amended to also name the Navy as a defendant.  The San Francisco suit, led by the NRDC, targets NOAA, charging that federal regulators did not use “best available science” and that their finding of “negligible impact” violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

At issue in both suits is the shockingly large numbers of animals that are permitted to be affected, amounting to nearly 10 million behavioral responses, the potential for 2000 permanent injuries (including hearing impairment), and 155 deaths over the course of five years.  “This is an unprecedented level of harm,” Zak Smith, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “In order to authorize these impacts on marine mammals, the service had to turn its back on the best available science.”

It’s important to note that while sonar has been the focus of most public concern, explosions during testing and training are predicted to cause most of the injuries and deaths.  The Navy and NMFS consider the estimates to be extremely cautious (ie far higher than actual likely impacts) for a number of reasons; see the bullet list in this earlier AEI post for more on why.

NRDC, Earthjustice, and the other plaintiffs continue to stress that the Navy can and should limit its activities in areas and times of particular biological importance to marine species; the lack of such “spatio-temporal restrictions” has been a bone of contention for many years, and this time, as in past rounds of permitting, the Navy and NMFS determined that such restrictions would yield little biological benefit.  A largely similar lawsuit filed in 2012, challenging NOAA permits for Navy training in the Pacific Northwest, ended up in a split decision, with the “best available science” ruling going against NOAA, but the large takes challenge (including the lack of exclusion zones, as well as faulty negligible impact ruling) falling short, with the court approving of NOAA’s analysis and actions.

UPDATE, 2/10/14: See this article from NRDC, outlining their reasons for this lawsuit and how it fits in with their 20-year history of focusing on ocean noise issues.

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New research listening in on whales as they hunt

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, shipping Comments Off

Two new research projects are taking important next steps in understanding the importance of sound, and clear listening, to whales.  In recent years, ocean bioacousticians have introduced the concept of “communication space” or “effective listening area” to scientific parlance. This began as a conceptual framework for thinking about how human sounds (especially shipping noise) may reduce the area across which whales can hear and be heard; researchers are now digging into more of the details of how this may actually impact animals in their daily lives.  After several recent studies that focused on whales hearing each other (and so framing their results in terms of “communication space”), two new studies are gathering initial data that may inform considerations of the ways whales listen for the presence of prey.  While whales can, and do, change some of their communication signals or patterns in order to be better heard by other whales in noisy conditions, there’s no such compensation that can help a whale hear their prey through a wash of noise.

Both of the new studies are taking advantage of acoustic tags to allow scientists to listen in on whales as they are foraging.  These tags are about the size of a large cell phone, and are attached to the animals with suction cups; they remain attached for up to 16 hours, then float to the surface for retrieval.  While attached, they record all sounds the whales hear and make, as well as logging swimming speed and dive orientation.

Orca attack seal near shoreWEBOne study is further along, having just published its first results, which confirm that orcas can hunt in near-total darkness, apparently relying only on zeroing in on their prey (in this case, seals) by listening for their mating calls.  These orcas do not use echolocation while hunting (other orcas, hunting salmon, do echolocate); they hunt in stealth mode, then dispatch their victims with a swat of their tail flukes.  This initial evidence is not totally conclusive; followup studies will confirm that orcas do, indeed, seek out seal sounds.  And, this sort of study is but the first step toward quantifying the extent to which ocean noise may limit the range over which orcas can hear seals while hunting.

The second study will begin next year, and will be putting the acoustic tags on large whales, to see whether they’re using acoustic cues to help locate aggregations of fish.  According to Dr. Rochelle Constantine:

“Acoustics within the marine space are really important for many organisms, yet we don’t know a lot about how it drives organisms’ interaction with their environment. We’re interested in looking at how the larger animals use the acoustic environment, particularly for food, and testing the hypothesis that food patches have specific sound signatures.”

Lunging Brydes Wha 300WEBShe said the sound of “bait balls” of prey, such as schools of fish, could be greatly heightened when a feeding frenzy involving larger fish and seabirds broke out.  Dr Constantine said whales had been observed swimming rapidly from over a kilometre away toward prey aggregations, “so we’re very interested to find out if there are specific acoustic cues they home in on”.

This study plans to play recorded sounds of fish aggregations and other prey sounds while the tags on the whales.  (I suppose if they happen to get lucky and have an actual feeding event occur while tags are attached, that will be a bonus, but the playback will serve as a reliable testing condition.)  This team is also interested in using acoustic tags on large fish and sharks, to explore the ways they may rely on listening, as well.

New paper details the acoustic quality of critical whale habitats

Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, Ocean, shipping Comments Off

AEI lay summary of:
R. Williams, C.W. Clark, D. Ponirakis, and E. Ashe.  Acoustic quality of critical habitats for three threatened whale populations.  Animal Conservation (2013).

Innovative research along the coast of British Columbia has quantified the degree to which shipping noise is reducing the distance at which whale vocalizations can be heard.  This is one of the first studies to use recordings of actual ocean noise levels to examine how the “communication space” of whales is affected by shipping noise in an area where whale conservation is a priority.  Among its troubling findings is that endangered orcas are facing the highest levels of noise in areas that are legally designated as critical habitat, with communication space reduced to 25% or less even in average noise conditions; over the entire study region, the area over which orcas can hear each other can be reduced by 62% during average noisy conditions, and 97% during the noisiest times.  Humpback whales face nearly as large reductions in some key areas (though not formally designated critical habitat; and, notably, are showing signs of a tenuous recovery in some of the areas studied), while fin whales, who have louder calls than the other species, are only mildly affected by shipping noise.

WilliamsCROP(noise levels and communication space in median noise conditions)

Communication space (alternatively termed “effective listening area”) is a relatively recent introduction into scientific parlance; it’s a measure of the area within which a particular species can hear and be heard by others of its kind; both marine and terrestrial bioacousticians have begun using this framework to better understand the ways animals may be affected by increased background noise introduced by human activities, including shipping, roads, and airplane overflights.  Previously, small increases in background noise were commonly considered to cause only negligible impacts, since there is rarely a clear or consistent behavioral reaction.  However, many animals rely on hearing things at the edges of audibility (calls of their kin, the approach of predators, the presence of prey), and a significant reduction in an animal’s communication space can cause a need to use more energy hunting, or to be in a heightened state of alertness (and stress) to avoid predation.

 

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Ocean noise may disrupt larval development

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AEI lay summary of:
Natasha Aguilar de Soto, Natali Delorme, John Atkins, Sunkita Howard, James Williams, Mark Johnson.  Anthropogenic noise causes body malformations and delays development in marine larvae.  Nature Scientific Reports, 3:2831.  DOI: 10.1038/srep02831 Download PDF

Just months after shipping noise was shown to cause dramatic behavioral changes in crabs, this new paper provides the first evidence that low-frequency seismic airgun sounds may trigger developmental delays and malformation in the larvae of shellfish.  Over the past decade or so, as researchers have looked more closely at behavioral disruptions caused by human noise sources, including temporary displacement of some fish stocks away from seismic surveys, there has been some concern that acute noise exposure from high-intensity sound sources such as airguns could also affect larval development.  If this were shown to be so, then regulators may need to consider protecting some vulnerable areas from intense noise exposure during seasons of key larval development.

This study exposed scallop larvae to recorded sounds of airgus, and compared larval development beginning after 24 hours of sound exposure and continuing until 90 hours.  This encompassed several stages of larval development, with 470-800 larvae examined at each sampling time.  

AirgunsLarvae350For the first day and a half, larvae exposed to airgun noise showed significant developmental delays.  At close to two days, the noise-exposed group appeared to be nearly as likely to be fully developed as the control group (upper right chart).  But, after passing the 48-hour mark, as the larvae moved into the next stage of development, those in noise lagged again; at 66 hours, all of the control larvae had completed the D-veligar development, while a large proportion of those exposed to noise did not complete this transition.  In addition, a significant proportion of the noise-exposed larvae began exhibiting physical abnormalities (localized bulges in the soft body of the larvae, but not in the shell).  By the end of the study, at 90 hours, an average of 46% of noise-exposed larvae showed malformations, ranging from 27%-91% in the four flasks being independently analyzed. (Ed. Note: I’ve reproduced five of the seven charts here, omitting samplings at 54hrs and 90hrs for the sake of better readability.)

The authors note that “the abnormalities observed here are comparable to those caused by chemical pollutants or water acidification, which have a clear impact on larval survival.”  They suggest several possible mechanisms for the abnormal bulges observed, and conclude that “although the exact mechanism is far from evident, physiological stress is likely the mediator for the developmental delays and growth abnormalities reported here.”  Further, the authors note that while behavioral responses vary widely both among and within species, stress response mechanisms are more generally similar across taxa, “suggesting that other invertebrates with similar growth patterns may be similarly affected.”

Of course, the nature of sound exposures in the ocean will be markedly different than those in this laboratory experiment, in which larvae were repeatedly exposed to a steady stream of 160dBrms impulses, once every three seconds for 24-90 hours.  In particular, the authors suggest that particle motion, rather than sound pressure, is the likely trigger for the effects, and acknowledge that several factors make it difficult to accurately predict the impact zone around an airgun in which particle motion would approach the 4-6mm/s RMS experienced by the sound-exposed larvae here.  In addition, the long periods of continuous exposure used in this testing procedure, while necessary in order to determine if there were indeed clear dose-response effects, may not be widely replicated in the wild.  Accordingly, the authors recommend that future research aim to establish the thresholds of exposure levels and durations that cause the effects seen here.

However, the authors stress that “given the strong disruption of larval development reported here, weaker but still significant effects can be expected at lower exposure levels and shorter exposure durations, especially if some ontogenetic stages such as the D-veliger prove to be particularly sensitive.”

First ruling in new sonar challenges fails to limit huge take numbers

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Sonar Comments Off

The first ruling is in from the latest round of legal challenges to Naval training permits, and it’s a split decision.  You’ll need to click through to read the full post to get all the details, but here’s a preview of the conclusion you’ll find at the end:

It appears that the places that the court found NMFS falling short are in the details of how they prepare and analyze information, while the end results of the Navy activities and NMFS analysis and permits were upheld as valid. The court did not accept the plaintiff’s core concerns about the huge numbers of animals authorized to be affected (as litigated on the questions of protected habitats, mitigation measures, and cumulative impacts), deferring to the NMFS analysis that deemed even these large numbers to be acceptable, largely because most impacts are minor and temporary. The rulings that went against NMFS each appear to require simply more data analysis, which will then be fed into the same decision-making process that has been upheld as valid. 

In 2012, Earthjustice, NRDC, and others challenged both the 2010 Northwest Training Range Complex permits authorizing five years of mid-frequency active sonar and explosions at sea, and permits authorizing global deployment of low-frequency active sonar through August 2017. While earlier challenges targeted the Navy’s environmental analysisor originally, the lack thereof—and ran aground when the Supreme Court ruled the Navy has broad discretion to weigh environmental safety against national security interests, this new round of lawsuits is directed at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s regulations and permits for the activities. 

In both cases, the primary focus of the challenges, at least as described in press releases, was insufficient protection of biologically important areas.  For several years, NRDC and others have stressed that Navy training ranges, which stretch along nearly the entire east and west coasts of the US, contain enough area for diverse training while setting aside some seasonal or year-round exclusion zones where training is avoided due to concentrations of marine animals.  Navy estimates of the numbers of animals likely to hear sonar or explosions, leading to either behavioral changes or injury, are alarmingly high, and the plaintiffs suggest that these numbers could be reduced significantly by setting some areas off limits, at least at key times. Unlike in previous challenges directed at the Navy itself, the plaintiffs did not seek any sort of injunction to halt the training exercises; rather, they asked that the court require the NMFS to revisit and revise their previous rules or authorizations in light of any deficiencies the court determined to be present.

As the NWTRC case moved into the argument phase, several specific challenges to NMFS procedures, analysis, and conclusions were raised and addressed. In a ruling issued by US Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas in late September, the plaintiffs came away with at least a temporary win on several points, while the NMFS prevailed on several other fronts, including on the fundamental arguments about habitat protection and long-term impacts.  As in previous rounds of this legal battle, it appears that the end result will be Navy training continuing pretty much as it was before any of the legal challenges began—though with detailed analysis of potential impacts continuing to be pushed into new realms by the legal challenges.

The court ruled that the NMFS had improperly failed to include some relevant studies from 2010 and 2011 when issuing a 2012 Letter of Authorization and Incidental Take Statement, two years after the initial Five-Year Regulations were issued, and so did not rely on the “best available evidence” and likely underestimated the number of animals affected by Navy activity in its 2012 permitting documents.  In addition, the court ruled that the NMFS should analyze impacts not just over the five years of each planning cycle, but for a longer (unspecified) time period, because Navy training is considered to be a permanent, long-term activity.  Over the next month, NMFS will file a brief describing what they see as an appropriate scope and duration of any order to change their previous documents, and the plaintiffs will file a reply; presumably, the Court will rule shortly thereafter on specific remedies.

However, the NMFS prevailed on several substantial issues, including the primary one and two important related challenges.  On the central question of setting aside exclusion zones to better protect essential habitats, the court ruled that the NMFS had given such exclusions due consideration, and lawfully concluded that such exclusions would not be likely to reduce take numbers significantly.  Likewise, the court ruled that NMFS determination of no significant impact did not rely on insufficient mitigation measures (primarily visual observers) in making its assessment of likely harm; rather, NMFS determined that even before mitigation measures were implemented, the numbers of animals affected and the degree of impact did not pose long-term risks to local populations.  

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Powerful mapping sonar likely triggered Madagascar mass stranding

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Sonar 1 Comment »

AEI lay summary of:
Southall, B.L., Rowles, T., Gulland, F., Baird, R. W., and Jepson, P.D. 2013. Final report of the Independent Scientific Review Panel investigating potential contributing factors to a 2008 mass stranding of melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra) in Antsohihy, Madagascar.
Download full report or executive summary.
See IWC website for report and all supporting materials 

Madagascar whalesWEBFor the first time, a mass stranding appears to have been triggered by a relatively high-frequency mapping sonar; most previous strandings (though rare) have been associated with mid-frequency military sonars.  An international, independent scientific review panel (ISRP) of five well-known marine mammal researchers has concluded that a 2008 stranding event on the northwest coast of Madagascar was likely precipitated by an avoidance response to a multi-beam echo-sounder system (MBES) being used to map the seafloor.

Over a hundred melon-headed whales, deep-water foragers who normally live far offshore, became trapped in a shallow estuary one day after the MBES was active 65km off the coast; locals and international marine conservation organizations collaborated for three weeks to save floundering whales, with at least 75 confirmed dead.  The ISRP investigated all known possible causes for such events, and concluded that the most likely trigger was that the whales were moving away from the sonar, and became trapped in the unfamiliar surroundings of the narrow La Loza Bay estuary.  There, they found it hard to orient and navigate in the shallow, murky water; lack of food sources, stress/fatigue, and an accumulation of small injuries led to eventual death for most.

Madagascar mapWEBAcoustic modeling suggests that the whales would have been able to hear the MBES signals for at least 30km from the survey vessel, to near the island seen on the map to the right, 25km offshore, at which point they apparently continued moving toward shore until straying into the stranding zone.  Why the animals continued moving inshore after the sonar was no longer audible is unclear.  This is a species that normally lives only in deep waters; once the whales moved past the cliff near the survey area and into shallow shelf waters, they may have been quite confused, and further behavioral anomalies (including ending up in the estuary) may be unrelated to the survey sounds.

UPDATE, 10/10/13: This WaPo article includes some skeptical responses, centering on the uncertainties about other factors (before and/or after the MBES sound exposure) that may have contributed to the stranding, and concerns that the strong language of this report could lead to an over-reaction among regulators.  A spokesman for Exxon-Mobil, which helped fund the study and the initial stranding responses, said, “our contract vessel happened to be there in that time frame, but there are so many uncertainties in the area that we’re not sure it’s us.” Still, the company has changed its practices to avoid use of MBES near sharp cliff faces, since the panel speculated that echoes off the cliff may have confused the whales, sending them further inshore.

The ISRP report concludes that “this clearly appears to be an atypical event,” yet also stresses that the MBES system may pose previously unrecognized risks:

It is important to note that these systems, while regularly used throughout the world in hydrographic surveys, are fundamentally different than most other high-frequency mapping or navigational systems (ed. note: or fish-finding sonars). They have relatively lower source frequencies (12 kHz is within the range of likely best hearing sensitivity for all marine mammals), very high output power, and complex configuration of many overlapping beams comprising a wide swath. Intermittent, repeated sounds of this nature could present a salient and potential aversive stimulus.

Click on through for more details on the stranding, the ISRP report, and maps.

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NPS to study how soundscape quality affects park visitors

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Equipment GRSA squareWEBFor over a decade, the National Park Service has been on the forefront of public lands agencies in addressing the role of sound and noise on both wildlife and park visitors.  NPS’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division has catalyzed baseline acoustic monitoring in seventeen parks, and carried out groundbreaking research on the effects of noise on wildlife.

Now, NPS is planning a national survey on how the quality of park soundscapes affects visitation at national parks, and the economies of gateway communities.  An August 9 Federal Register notice is seeking public comment on the value such a study, with the hope of doing a small-scale pilot survey in 2014, in preparation for the full study in 2015.  The last time NPS sought comments on a similar proposal, they received no public comments and did not proceed.  Now’s the time to chime in, as comments close on September 9.  (Go here, and be sure to note the topics they want input on, and send your comments to both email addresses listed.)

“In addition to parsing out the extent to which visitors value being able to hear the sounds of nature, the study will provide other useful information such as how acoustic conditions affect the likelihood of repeat visitation to national parks,” the agency said in a summary of the survey.  

At a daylong public outreach workshop on Noise in Communities and Natural Areas earlier this month (which I was fortunate to attend), Kurt Fristrup and Frank Turina outlined some of the ongoing soundscape work in parks. Turina described a pilot project at Rocky Mountain National park that uses flashing signs to notify motorcyclists of the noise levels of their bikes (much like instantaneous speed-tracking signs), with the goal of encouraging riders to moderate their noise while enjoying park roads.  Fristrup shared some fascinating research revealing that hikers on the Hermit Trail at the Grand Canyon nearly universally reported lower levels of overall satisfaction with their visitor experience after overflight helicopters start flying each morning. Hikers were asked to rate their experience on a 7-point scale, from Very Pleasant to Very Unpleasant.  Prior to the start of flights, Very Pleasant (7) received was the most chosen rating, with no one choosing the lower Unpleasant to Very Unpleasant ratings of 3, 2, or 1.  After flights began, the graph of responses shifted distinctly toward the less pleasant ratings: the number of people rating their experience at 7 dropped dramatically and the lower ratings, all the way down to 1, joined the mix.

Crabs affected by shipping noise, too

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Science, shipping 1 Comment »

CrabWEBAdd crabs, and perhaps by extension other crustaceans, to the list of animals negatively affected by shipping noise in the world’s oceans.  

A new study has found that ship noise markedly changes some important crab behaviors:

Working with the same common shore crabs that children delight in catching on crablines in UK harbours, the team found ecologically-critical effects of ship noise-playback on behaviour.

Matt Wale from the University of Bristol said: “Crabs feeding on mussels were often distracted when ship noise was playing compared to quiet harbour recordings. Furthermore, crabs took longer to retreat to shelter after simulated attacks in noisy treatments, and if turned upside-down they flipped back far quicker in noisy conditions rather than turning slowly to avoid attracting attention of potential predators.”

Dr Steve Simpson from Biosciences at the University of Exeter said: “We have already found that ship noise raises the metabolic rate and energetic needs of crabs. If coupled with reduced foraging and worsened responses to predators, this cocktail of impacts may negatively affect growth, fitness, survival and, ultimately, harvested populations and whole ecosystems.”

Cetaceans (whales and dolphins), fish, and larvae of reef creatures have previously been found to respond to shipping noise in ways that can increase energy expenditures and stress levels; this is the first clear indication that crustaceans are also negatively affected.

SOCAL begins 2013 behavioral response study

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The 2013 field season of the 5-year Southern California Behavioral Response study is underway now.  This research applies suction-cup tags to whales, which track the whales’ movements (dive patterns, speed, direction, etc.) while also recording the sounds the whales are hearing, including sounds of mid-frequency active sonar played underwater by the researchers under carefully controlled conditions.  Earlier years’ results have begun to quantify the level of sound that can spur behavioral reactions in several species of whales, including the beaked whales that have appeared to be more sensitive to sonar sound, resulting in several stranding incidents over the past fifteen years.  Most recently, two new papers reported that both blue whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales seem to avoid sonar sounds, and at times stop feeding, at sound levels below most current regulatory thresholds.

SOCAL researchers will be posting updates from the field here.

Behavioral Response Study – Tagging Beaked Whales from Brandon Southall on Vimeo.

Blue, beaked whales stop foraging when exposed to sonar?

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Science, Sonar Comments Off

AEI lay summary of:
Goldbogen JA, Southall BL, DeRuiter SL, Calambokidis J, Friedlaender AS, Hazen EL, Falcone EA, Schorr GS, Douglas A, Moretti DJ, Kyburg C, McKenna MF, Tyack PL. 2013 Blue whales respond to simulated mid-frequency military sonar. Proc R Soc B 280: 20130657. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.0657 (download here)
and
DeRuiter SL, Southall BL, Calambokidis J, Zimmer WMX, Sadykova D, Falcone EA, Friedlaender AS, Joseph JE, Moretti D, Schorr GS, Thomas L, Tyack PL. 2013 First direct measurements of behavioural responses by Cuvier’s beaked whales to mid-frequency active sonar. Biol Lett 9: 20130223. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2013.0223 (download here

Results from studies off Southern California have quantified for the first time the reactions of Blue whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales to simulations of naval mid-frequency active sonar.  In both cases, scientists found that whales tended to move away from sonar signals, and appeared to suspend feeding activity for an hour or more at times.   

The Cuvier’s beaked whale results marked the first time this species had successfully been monitored during a controlled exposure to sound while wearing a temporary suction-cup “D-TAG” that allows researchers to track animal dive and movement patterns while also recording the sound level of the sonar signal that the animal is hearing. As with similar experiments done on other species of beaked whale, the two whales tagged in this study changed their normal dive patterns, paused or stopped echolocating for food, and waited longer at the surface after the sonar sound ended before they began diving normally again.  The pause in foraging lasted for 6 hours in one whale, and at least 90 minutes for the other.  

The whales’ behavior was changed at sound levels (89-127dB) that are far below the levels typically considered problematic by regulators (typically 160-180dB; though some Navy EIS’s use 120dB for beaked whales, because of their previously observed noise sensitivity).
CORRECTION, 1/31/14: The current round of Navy EISs and NOAA permits consider exposures down to 120dB in their analysis of behavioral “takes” for all species.

Researchers concluded that “The observed responses included vigorous swimming and extended time without echolocation-based foraging, imposing a net energetic cost that (if repeated) could reduce individual fitness.”  While they did not see rapid ascents from dives that would support an early theory that some beaked whales may suffer tissue damage similar to what human divers experience as “the bends,” they suggest that the disruption of normal dive and surface-resting patterns could affect the animals’ dive metabolism in ways we don’t yet understand.  Also of interest in this study was an unexpected period during which a tagged animal was exposed to sound from a distant (over 100km) naval exercise; in that case, the animal showed no response, though received levels were similar (78-106dB); researchers suggest that the animals could tell that these signals were much more distant than the test signals, which were under 10km away.

The Blue whale results were a bit more ambiguous, as there was significant individual variation among the 12 whales that were tagged and exposed to sonar-like sounds. Some whales were foraging at the surface, some were deep-diving feeding, and some were diving but not feeding.  Whales at the surface showed little response, while diving animals reacted more strongly, including some instances of clear avoidance (i.e., swimming away, or “horizontal displacement” in the research parlance).  

While the Blue whale results were not as uniform as the Cuvier’s results, this is the first time that blue whales have been studied to see how they respond to mid-frequency sonar, and the researchers consider even the modest effects to be significant, especially since blue whale populations are not rebounding similarly to other large whales.  As the  researchers conclude: “our results suggest that frequent exposures to mid-frequency anthropogenic sounds may pose significant risks to the recovery rates of endangered blue whale populations, which unlike other baleen whale populations (i.e. humpback, grey and fin whales), have not shown signs of recovery off the western coast of North America in the last 20 years.” 

Using a complex set of measurements of 54 behavioral metrics (including such factors as orientation angle to the sound, change in pitch or angle of descent or ascent, and the number of lunges per dive), and applying a statistical formula that resulted in the average “response” ratings on the left axis of the charts below, researchers found statistically significant changes three key areas.  The chart below shows the clear, yet subtle, changes in dive patterns (a), body orientation (b), and horizontal displacement (c), especially among the deep-feeding animals:

CEE blue whales500

Researchers note that the whale that showed the largest reaction stopped feeding as soon as hearing the sonar signal and swam away from the sound; it did not begin feeding again for an hour, during which time it would have eaten over a ton of krill, which is about the minimum amount a whale needs per day (i.e., it’s a metabolically significant loss).  

The responses noted occurred at average peak received levels of 130-160dB, again, notably lower than most regulatory thresholds for behavioral responses, which range from 160-180dB. CORRECTION, 1/31/14: The current round of Navy EISs and NOAA permits consider exposures down to 120dB in their analysis of behavioral “takes” for all species; in fact, the bulk of behavioral responses for “low frequency cetaceans,” such as blue whales, is expected at exposures similar to those here. There was a large range of response ratings for both dive patterns and body orientation (the chart above shows the average among all individuals); the avoidance responses showed a more modest range of variability, except for the one extreme response noted above.  Overall, the results confirm previously-observed importance of behavioral context: “Since some of the most pronounced responses occurred near the onset of exposure but other, higher level exposures provoked no response, the data suggest that the use of received level alone in predicting responses may be problematic and that a more complex dose – response function that considers behavioural contexts will be more appropriate. Management decisions regarding baleen whales and military sonar should consider the likely contexts of exposure and the foraging ecology of animals in predicting responses and planning operations in order to minimize adverse effects.”

 

Biologically rich areas off limits while Gulf seismic EIS is conducted

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys Comments Off

Thirty months after environmental groups sued to force ongoing seismic survey programs in the Gulf of Mexico to be subject to more robust compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, a settlement announced this week requires full EIS’s to be completed within thirty months from now.  In the meantime, surveys will be kept out of three key biologically important areas, as well as from nearshore waters during the spring calving season of bottlenose dolphins.  In addition, the oil and gas industry committed to continue working on alternatives that may affect sea life less widely, particularly vibroseismic techniques that would vibrate the seafloor directly (similar to a technique widely used for onshore oil and gas exploration), rather than via loud explosive sounds from airguns.  

3D seismicWEBAnd, the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management will develop new standards to assure that airgun surveys are not unnecessarily duplicative.  Dozens of surveys take place every year in the Gulf, with repeat surveys sometimes needed to assess reservoir depletion, and as new and improved imaging capabilities are developed; often, survey results are considered proprietary, especially prior to bidding on leases.

3D seismic imagery, above; airguns firing, below.

Airguns firingWEB“Today’s agreement is a landmark for marine mammal protection in the Gulf,” said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “For years this problem has languished, even as the threat posed by the industry’s widespread, disruptive activity has become clearer and clearer.”

Of particular concern are several populations of whales that are relatively few in number, and thus vulnerable to any disruption—in particular, the Gulf’s small population of sperm whales, whose nursery in Mississippi Canyon was ground zero for the spill. In 2009 an Interior Department study found that Gulf sperm whales subjected to even moderate amounts of airgun noise appeared to lose almost 20 percent of their foraging ability, which may help explain why the population hasn’t recovered from whaling.

International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) President Chip Gill stated, “Under the settlement agreement, permitting of seismic surveys in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico will continue. (The exclusion zones) are all areas where no lease sales are scheduled and where the prospective areas have recently been surveyed using modern surveying technology. . . . Some of the mitigation measures in the settlement agreement are voluntarily employed by industry around the world. Many of the others have been employed by industry in the GOM for the last several years.”

One of the new requirements that may not have been widely used in the Gulf is the employment of listening devices to help identify whales that may be nearby but unseen by observers scanning for surfacing whales.  As with the controversy over Navy noise-making, much of the nitty gritty of the new EIS process will focus on subtle behavioral impacts, and the difficult question of how much such disruption is tolerable while maintaining the health of animal populations.  A recent scoping hearing in Florida, marking the beginning of the long EIS development process in one zone of the Gulf, included some back and forth on this question.

For a full list of the settlement requirements, see this CBD press release.
Previous AEI coverage here and here.

RELATED: Australian environmentalists are upset about seismic surveys OK’d in an area important to blue whales.  According to an article in The Standard, “Government guidelines are clear that seismic surveys should avoid places and time of year when whales are highly likely to be present,” said Michael Collis of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “We can’t think of a clearer example of this than Australia’s largest ever sighting of blue whales. People should view noise pollution the same way they view chemical pollution. The scientific community is slowly waking up to what a problem this is.” Collis said the fear was the giant mammals could be displaced from their feeding grounds, causing unknown repercussions, and knocked back suggestions that environmentalists opposed all off-shore gas mining exploration. “In Australia there are over 300 oil and gas reserves. We are talking about five areas that are special to whales,” Mr Collis said.

 

2008 UK stranding linked to Navy exercises

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On June 9, 2008, 26 common dolphins, 21 of them infants, stranded and died in river estuaries around Falmouth Bay, as several days of Naval exercises involving over 30 ships wound down (see AIEnews coverage at the time).  A four-year study (read it online) has  concluded that unspecified Naval activities are “the most probable (but not definitive) cause” of the strandings, which involved at least 60 animals in all, with most of the adults re-floated and guided back to sea.  

The study ruled out other common causes of cetacean strandings, including foraging for fish in shallows, attack by orcas, illness, algal toxins, recreational boats, and earthquakes.  However, the researchers also could not identify a likely trigger among the Naval activities taking place on the morning of the strandings or the day preceding the discovery of the struggling animals.  Press reports at the time suggested that locals heard some large explosions on the day before and day of the strandings, though the researchers did not find records to indicate such activity. Mid-frequency sonar transmissions ended four days earlier; that or other ongoing activity is thought to have driven the dolphins into the bay, with unknown further disruptions triggering the fatal strandings early on the 9th.  According to lead author Paul Jepson, “Eyewitnesses described their behaviour as swimming continuously in tight circles, being vocal, fluke-slapping, leaning sideways, and often with one or more individuals attempting to strand.” 

Strandings550

The lack of a clear cause for the final stranding event during a relative pause in Naval activity on the day before the early-morning discovery of the floundering dolphins adds a familiar ambiguity to the situation.  A Naval spokesman noted that they disagreed with the report’s conclusion and stressed their decades of similar exercises in the area without mass strandings, while conservation groups including the NRDC and the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation called for exercises to be redesigned. While cetaceans can often move away from unwanted noise, it’s long been known that strandings can occur when animals become trapped in areas with no escape route, such as apparently happened here.

Despite Naval denials of responsibility, this event did spur some changes that have led to later exercises being temporarily suspended when dolphins appeared on the verge of being trapped in a similar situation.  As detailed in the new study:

Following this MSE (Mass Stranding Event) and recommendations from the organisations involved in the rescue of dolphins in the MSE, the UK Ministry of Defence initiated the Marine Underwater Sound Stakeholders Forum in the UK to regularly meet with all interested stakeholders (scientists, other Government Departments like Defra and a range of non-Governmental organisations) to discuss these issues in some detail. A direct line of communication was also established after the Falmouth MSE to facilitate rapid exchange of information between cetacean strandings/sightings organisations and Royal Navy Naval Command Headquarters to report groups of pelagic cetaceans seen unusually close to shore and potentially at increased risk of stranding. This was used to report a near-MSE of over 20 common dolphins in the Fal estuary in April 2009 that was seen 15 minutes after RN sonar trials were initiated in the region. The RN immediately modified the naval exercise (including use of active sonars) until the group of dolphins had returned to open sea several hours later. The need to alter training excercises due to the presence of dolphins has not subsequently occurred in this region.

According to the authors, “Such continual improvement of mitigation strategies by the military themselves is probably the best way to limit future environmental impacts of naval activities, including cetacean MSEs.”

Judge overturns snowmobile exemption to USFS Travel Management Rule

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When the US Forest Service initiated far-reaching Travel Management planning in 2005, mandating that all National Forests analyze off-road vehicle use on their lands, and specify roads and trails where off-road vehicles would be allowed, wilderness and quiet-use advocates were thrilled.  Before that, many forests allowed free-ranging use of ATVs, dirt bikes, and other vehicles on any trail not specifically designated as off-limits with posted signs.  Thanks to the all-too-common practice of removing such signs, along with the more-than-occasional off-trail use that created “new” trails over time, the new rules, which turned the tables by allowing vehicles only in areas clearly designated for their use was a big step forward.  Those traveling by foot could look forward to having a bit more separation between themselves and lovers of motorized recreation; often, ridgelines separated basins where visitors could expect to find substantial natural quiet.

Snowmobile copyExcept in winter.  The groundbreaking Travel Management Rule specifically exempted snowmobiles from being subject to the limits contained in each forest’s local Travel Management Plan.  The reasoning was that many of the damaging aspects of unfettered ORV use were less relevant in winter; in particular, damage to vegetation and streambeds, and all the related risks of increased erosion.  These impacts are indeed significantly less in winter, though some soil compaction can occur beneath snowmobile trails over meadows.

But one key impact from motorized use can actually be worse in winter: the noise footprint of the vehicles.  Thanks to better sound transmission in cool air and across frozen, leafless landscapes, the sounds of snowmobiles often travel much further than the sounds of ATVs and dirt bikes in summer. This can clearly impact other forms of recreation, as well as disturbing animals who are sensitive to noise intrusions. In Idaho, lovers of “quiet recreation” worked hard to get snowmobiles included in national and regional travel planning, and when they failed, the national Winter Wildlands Alliance took the question to the courts.

This week, a Federal Judge in Boise agreed that the exclusion of snowmobiles from an otherwise comprehensive approach to travel management planning was “arbitrary and capricious” and “contrary to law,” ordering the Forest Service to revise the 2005 Travel Management Rule within 180 days to include snowmobile management.  According to the AP:

Mark Menlove, executive director with the Winter Wildlands Alliance, said the decision was a monumental victory for backcountry skiers and other winter recreationists seeking a peaceful experience in the woods.  The group’s goal is to not shut down snowmobiles in national forests, but force the agency to designate specific boundaries that carve out distinct areas for those who want to explore on powered sleds and those preferring skis, snowshoes and hiking boots.

“Many of our members use snowmobiles more and more to get to certain places, so we’re not in any way asking the forest service to ban them,” Menlove told The Associated Press on Monday. “But we are asking for some balance there, where our constituents can go and find peace and powder snow in the backcountry.”

While this ruling applies only to National Forests in Idaho, it may lead to similar reviews and expansion of travel management planning nationwide.  

WHOI researchers distill whale calls from seismic survey data

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Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have completed a proof of concept study that appears to be able to identify individual whale calls in the data collected by seismic surveys.  In the initial data, the researchers were able to cull fin whale calls from the recordings made as airguns blasted their pulses of sound into the ocean floor.  Blue whales are also likely candidates for being heard on the recordings, since their calls also overlap with the frequencies of interest to seismic mapping efforts.

“We have a huge amount of data that can say, ‘Did they change their behavior? Did they stop feeding? Did they stop talking? Did they talk louder?’, and that’s what we want to know,” said WHOI seismologist Dan Lizarralde.

Lizarralde and collaborators are currently seeking funding to develop a computer algorithm that can help with the daunting task of extracting the whale calls from massive amounts of seismic survey data.

For the full story, including spectrograms and comments from other researchers, see this story on LiveScience.com

California regulators reject Navy training plans despite federal approvals

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The California Coastal Commission has rejected the Navy’s 5-year plan for training and testing activities that recently received provisional approvals from the National Marine Fisheries Service.  In a unanimous vote, CCC members said the Navy’s environmental studies failed to back up its claim that impacts on marine life would be negligible during the years 2014-2019.

The Navy’s studies and permit requests suggest that its activities off Southern California could cause 9 million behavioral impacts, 2000 injuries, and up to 130 deaths, though the Navy and NMFS expect impacts to be far lower, and whatever effects do actually occur to have negligible biological impact on populations.  The CCC wants to see more solid science to back up the Navy’s claim that the large numbers will not reflect actual impacts.  Contrary to the Navy’s claim that their projected impact numbers are much higher than what will actually occur, Michael Jasny of the National Resources Defense Council told Commissioners, “We think these are underestimates.”  (See previous AEInews coverage of the Navy and NMFS assessments: New NMFS Navy “take” permits: outrageous or reasonable?)

During the previous 5-year planning round, the CCC took a similar stand, and a Federal Court agreed to some additional precautionary requirements that somewhat limited Navy operations; that ruling led first to a Marine Mammal Protection Act exemption issued by President Bush, and finally to a Supreme Court ruling granting the Navy broad discretion to make operational decisions, and limiting court oversight.

Mark Delaplaine, a coastal manager for the CCC, noted the difficulty of assessing actual impacts: “I’m just torn between the fact that we haven’t seen strandings in this area, and these very large numbers (in Navy estimates) that are really a cause for alarm,” he said.  Still, he stressed that “you have to have additional precautions….It doesn’t make sense to train where there are large amounts of sea mammals.”

The CCC asked the Navy to voluntarily adopt a set of additional precautions in California waters, including larger safety zones in which they would shut down sonar and explosive operations when animals are nearby, avoiding several designated marine sanctuaries and areas known to host seasonal concentrations of blue, fin, and gray whales, and remaining at least 1km (a bit over a half mile) offshore.  The NRDC concurs with these requirements, and encourages a couple more, including avoiding sonar and explosive activity at night, when nearby animals are much harder to detect, and using the Navy’s instrumented ranges to help detect animals.

The Navy declined these requests. “We understand that the Navy is obligated to be consistent with the state’s coastal zone requirements, to the maximum extent practicable,” said Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga. “And we believe we are.”

For more details on the hearing, see these articles from the Orange County Register and AP.  For a deeper look at the Navy and NMFS studies, see the AEInews lay summary of the Atlantic and Pacific 5-year plans.

Yellowstone snowmobile plan finally getting off its merry-go-round?

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, News, Vehicles, Wildlands Comments Off

It’s been a couple of years since we’ve checked in on the eternal Snowmobiles in Yellowstone debate, and in what’s sure to be a shock for those who’ve been following the issue since the Clinton administration, not much has changed!  During Team Obama’s first summer, Ken Salazar announced that the ongoing string of temporary winter use plans would be extended for a couple of years while the NPS accepted comments on yet another round of EIS preparation.  The Clinton adminstration completed an full EIS process, and announced its final ruling (which banned snowmobiles) just in time for the winter during which W was sworn in; the Bush NPS team suspended that plan and launched a brand new round of comments under a new set of temporary rules.  While the Bush plan didn’t ban snowmobiles, it did require, for the first time, that all groups of snowmobilers go with a local professional guide.  This requirement led to a dramatic decrease in snowmobiles entering Yellowstone; most snowmobilers prefer being able to be footloose, and the huge expanses of National Forest land in the region became their preferred playground.  Complicating implementation of that plan, however, were dueling Federal court rulings that appeared to contradict each other; some of these uncertainties lingered on into 2009, as the Obama administration began overseeing the process.

Snomobison011805In the years since, the two-year extension of the Bush-era temporary plan stretched to four, and finally the new proposed plan has been released.  In truth, it isn’t all that different than the Bush plan in terms of total numbers of snowmobiles and snowcoaches, though it tweaks a few elements in ways that may reduce some impacts, especially air quality, over time.   It seems likely that the noise impacts will be roughly similar to those documented in a series of studies we covered here in 2009, in which NPS researchers found that snowmobiles or snowcoaches were audible over half the day in many popular areas, including at Old Faithful 68% of the time, and 59% of the time at Madison Junction.  Still, the new plan does include some absolute dB limits for snowmobiles (67dB) and snowcoaches (75dB), and requires best-available technology on all vehicles by five years from now. The plan opens the door a crack to unguided groups (allowing one per day from each Park entrance), and continues the expensive practice of using explosives to keep a rarely-used pass open to snowmobiles (at the behest of the businesses in nearby Cody, Wyoming).  While the plan slightly increases the average number of snowmobiles to be allowed (from 318 to 342), the actual daily average over the past several winters has been under 200 per day.

Given that previous plans have triggered lawsuits from both environmental groups seeking stricter rules and local business interests wanting fewer restrictions, it’s probably a good sign that both the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the snowmobile group Blue Ribbon Coalition responded with generally positive comments, while unlike 2009, no instant legal challenge came from the State of Wyoming, either. Fatigue has finally settled in, it appears, as the BRC’s spokesman suggested: “I think for my organization it would be important to resolve this and come up with a long-range plan that doesn’t get challenged in the courts.”

For detailed coverage of the new plan, see this article from National Parks Traveller.  The local Billings Gazette is always a good source for those wanting to track how this all unfolds.

New NMFS Navy “take” permits: outrageous or reasonable?

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Science, Sonar Comments Off

The release of Proposed Rules to govern US Navy training and testing operations in the waters of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Southern California, and Hawaii from 2014-2019 has put the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the crosshairs of an outraged response from environmental groups.  NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and others point to the staggering numbers of “Level B” harassment that will be allowed: over 31 million incidents, along with “Level A” injury predictions including permanent hearing loss numbering in the thousands, capped by several hundred deaths.  These numbers reflect far more than sonar training; also included in these permits are impacts from ongoing training and testing of systems used in live gunnery and torpedo exercises, explosive mine-neutralization, air, surface, and submarine battle exercises, and ship-shock trials (in which large explosives are set off near ships to test their resilience).

Navy AFTT w PAAs  WEB

“We’re talking about a staggering and unprecedented amount of harm to more than 40 species of marine mammals that should give any federal agency involved, be it the Navy or the National Marine Fisheries Service, pause,” NRDC attorney Zak Smith said in a statement.  The take numbers are generally about twice as high as those in the last round of permitting, which covered a five year period from 2009-2013.

“We absolutely share the concern about protecting marine mammals,” said Alex Stone, an environmental program manager with the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. “We think that the mitigation measures are effective, but it’s true, you’re never going to see every marine mammal that’s there. But in terms of impacts on species, we really haven’t seen any of those after years and years of doing these same types of training and testing activities in these same areas.”

“That’s always been a dubious argument but in light of new information it’s wearing especially thin,” said Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a KQED segment. “We now know that beaked whales off California are declining precipitously. We know that blue whales aren’t recovering.” Jasny says the Navy should avoid key areas, like gray whale migration routes and the summer feeding grounds of endangered blue and fin whales. “Southern California is a globally important feeding habitat for them,” said Jasny. “It should be elementary common sense to avoid the core feeding habitat of blue whales. “

How could NMFS sign off on such a seemingly devastating number of permitting takes?  Well, as is often the case, the picture isn’t quite as clear as the headlines may make it seem.  Indeed, we are once again thrust into a funhouse-mirror world of wildly divergent ways of framing the proposed plans.  Press releases and resultant popular press headlines trumpet the NMFS rule as “allowing the Navy to harm whales, dolphins more than 31 million times,” with the permitted incidental takes being described as including “a wide range of harms, including destruction of habitat, physical injury and death.”  The Navy’s statement offers a much more sanguine perspective on the tens of millions of behavioral takes, describing these effects as “e.g., turning head, changing swim direction.”  Huh? What to make of all this?

I dug into the Draft EISs and Letter of Authorization requests developed by the Navy, and the two Proposed Rules announced in January, in order to try to understand how Navy and NMFS biologists could have approved the scary numbers.  I came away far less freaked out, though still disappointed that the Navy and NMFS don’t appear ready or willing to keep noisy Navy activities out of some biologically rich areas.  This has been one of the central points of contention pushed by environmental groups for the past few years, and it remains valid to ask why this practical protective step has not been taken, at least regarding explosive activities with a higher risk of injury. (The vast distances over which some of these sounds travel likely means that exclusion zones to avoid behavioral “takes” may need to extend up to 50-100 miles from the regions of concern in order to provide full protection from noise disruptions; the practicality of such large exclusion zones may be harder to establish, though worthy of discussion.)

After a few hours of reading and digesting several hundred pages of environmental analysis and permitting documents, I was able to distill a few of the key take-aways that may help readers to understand NMFS’s reasoning, as well as the shortcomings of the plans.  Click through for my ten-minute version of what’s in these permits.

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