Turning up the volume on how noise impacts whale health

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Turning up the volume on how noise impacts whale health
Fri. Jul 20: The federal government has committed over $26 million toward researching how ocean noise connects to the health and habits of marine life. Jeremy Keefe reports – Jul 20, 2018

Listening to the sounds emanating from the ocean could lead to better understanding whale health and habits, now researchers in the Atlantic are ramping up their noise monitoring efforts thanks to new federal funding.

Atlantic Canadian researchers are receiving $26.6 million in funding from the Oceans Protection Plan to further their work under the Marine Environmental Quality Initiative.

The funding will support the already underway research local scientists have been working on for several years, studying marine life, their travel patterns and how shipping and other man-made noise affects their well-being.

“They’re experiencing a very high variability of noise,” explained David Barclay, an associate professor at Dalhousie University’s Oceanography Department. “The ocean is a noisy place so when you have really strong winds, it’s quite loud. The question is how much louder are ships or human activities over that fluctuating background noise?”

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Sitting at the bottom of the Bay of Fundy for the past year is a recording device that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans placed there to monitor activity.

The funding will help ensure their research can continue.

They’re efforts scientists say are vital to furthering their understanding of what whales and other marine animals are experiencing underwater and how it can negatively affect them, perhaps even causing deaths as seen in recent memory.

“It’s really important to do the research because if you don’t know where the right whales are you can’t protect them,” explained DFO researcher Andrew Wright. “While we have an idea of how noise does influence marine mammals around the world, we’re still building up our understanding of exactly how they respond.”

“Humans, we make them to fill out surveys and whatnot and get some idea of their perception of the noise,” Barclay said. “We’re not really able to do that with the animals themselves.”

READ MORE: Nova Scotia finalist for potential site of world’s first whale sanctuary

Ongoing work by Dalhousie has helped researchers map whale movements in areas like the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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They’ve begun to track when populations leave certain areas which they can compare to variations in noise.

Identifying patterns, they say, will be key to minimizing negative effects from those on the water.

“Now there are abilities to reroute traffic, slow down traffic, change the fishing effort in certain locations at certain times to reduce the likelihood of vessel strikes and to reduce the likelihood of entanglement,” explained Christopher Taggart, also of Dalhousie.

In addition to the monitoring taking place underwater, researchers also plan to use drones above the sea.

Through that work they’ll be able to fly over whales in their habitat to track their size and better understand and monitor their health.

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