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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.