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      Behavioral Response Study on Seismic Airgun and Vessel Exposures in Narwhals

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          Abstract

          One of the last pristine marine soundscapes, the Arctic, is exposed to increasing anthropogenic activities due to climate-induced decrease in sea ice coverage. In this study, we combined movement and behavioral data from animal-borne tags in a controlled sound exposure study to describe the reactions of narwhals, Monodon monoceros, to airgun pulses and ship noise. Sixteen narwhals were live captured and instrumented with satellite tags and Acousonde acoustic-behavioral recorders, and 11 of them were exposed to airgun pulses and vessel sounds. The sound exposure levels (SELs) of pulses from a small airgun (3.4 L) used in 2017 and a larger one (17.0 L) used in 2018 were measured using drifting recorders. The experiment was divided into trials with airgun and ship-noise exposure, intertrials with only ship-noise, and pre- and postexposure periods. Both trials and intertrials lasted ∼4 h on average per individual. Depending on the location of the whales, the number of separate exposures ranged between one and eight trials or intertrials. Received pulse SELs dropped below 130 dB re 1 μPa 2 s by 2.5 km for the small airgun and 4–9 km for the larger airgun, and background noise levels were reached at distances of ∼3 and 8–10.5 km, respectively, for the small and big airguns. Avoidance reactions of the whales could be detected at distances >5 km in 2017 and >11 km in 2018 when in line of sight of the seismic vessel. Meanwhile, a ∼30% increase in horizontal travel speed could be detected up to 2 h before the seismic vessel was in line of sight. Applying line of sight as the criterion for exposure thus excludes some potential pre-response effects, and our estimates of effects must therefore be considered conservative. The whales reacted by changing their swimming speed and direction at distances between 5 and 24 km depending on topographical surroundings where the exposure occurred. The propensity of the whales to move towards the shore increased with increasing exposure (i.e., shorter distance to vessels) and was highest with the large airgun used in 2018, where the whales moved towards the shore at distances of 10–15 km. No long-term effects of the response study could be detected.

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          Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales.

          Baleen whales (Mysticeti) communicate using low-frequency acoustic signals. These long-wavelength sounds can be detected over hundreds of kilometres, potentially allowing contact over large distances. Low-frequency noise from large ships (20-200 Hz) overlaps acoustic signals used by baleen whales, and increased levels of underwater noise have been documented in areas with high shipping traffic. Reported responses of whales to increased noise include: habitat displacement, behavioural changes and alterations in the intensity, frequency and intervals of calls. However, it has been unclear whether exposure to noise results in physiological responses that may lead to significant consequences for individuals or populations. Here, we show that reduced ship traffic in the Bay of Fundy, Canada, following the events of 11 September 2001, resulted in a 6 dB decrease in underwater noise with a significant reduction below 150 Hz. This noise reduction was associated with decreased baseline levels of stress-related faecal hormone metabolites (glucocorticoids) in North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). This is the first evidence that exposure to low-frequency ship noise may be associated with chronic stress in whales, and has implications for all baleen whales in heavy ship traffic areas, and for recovery of this endangered right whale population.
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            Beaked Whales Respond to Simulated and Actual Navy Sonar

            Beaked whales have mass stranded during some naval sonar exercises, but the cause is unknown. They are difficult to sight but can reliably be detected by listening for echolocation clicks produced during deep foraging dives. Listening for these clicks, we documented Blainville's beaked whales, Mesoplodon densirostris, in a naval underwater range where sonars are in regular use near Andros Island, Bahamas. An array of bottom-mounted hydrophones can detect beaked whales when they click anywhere within the range. We used two complementary methods to investigate behavioral responses of beaked whales to sonar: an opportunistic approach that monitored whale responses to multi-day naval exercises involving tactical mid-frequency sonars, and an experimental approach using playbacks of simulated sonar and control sounds to whales tagged with a device that records sound, movement, and orientation. Here we show that in both exposure conditions beaked whales stopped echolocating during deep foraging dives and moved away. During actual sonar exercises, beaked whales were primarily detected near the periphery of the range, on average 16 km away from the sonar transmissions. Once the exercise stopped, beaked whales gradually filled in the center of the range over 2–3 days. A satellite tagged whale moved outside the range during an exercise, returning over 2–3 days post-exercise. The experimental approach used tags to measure acoustic exposure and behavioral reactions of beaked whales to one controlled exposure each of simulated military sonar, killer whale calls, and band-limited noise. The beaked whales reacted to these three sound playbacks at sound pressure levels below 142 dB re 1 µPa by stopping echolocation followed by unusually long and slow ascents from their foraging dives. The combined results indicate similar disruption of foraging behavior and avoidance by beaked whales in the two different contexts, at exposures well below those used by regulators to define disturbance.
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              Anthropogenic and natural sources of ambient noise in the ocean

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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Frontiers in Marine Science
                Front. Mar. Sci.
                Frontiers Media SA
                2296-7745
                June 21 2021
                June 21 2021
                : 8
                Article
                10.3389/fmars.2021.658173
                35685121
                b84c4ccb-60fa-4962-9184-7c90a292d9d2
                © 2021

                Free to read

                https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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