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Chronic Ocean Noise: Cetacean Ecology and Acoustic habitat Loss

Final Report Summary - CONCEAL (Chronic ocean noise: cetacean ecology and acoustic habitat loss)

The overall aim of project CONCEAL was to quantify the ecological consequences to marine mammals of acoustic habitat degradation due to masking effects of chronic ocean noise (e.g. marine shipping traffic and renewable energy sources) in a robust statistical modelling framework. The CONCEAL project allowed quantification of this threat in a rigorous, repeatable and standardised way that informs species-specific mitigation measures and assists reporting. This multidisciplinary study integrated expertise from three disciplines:

(i) biology,
(ii) acoustics and
(iii) statistical modelling.

The objectives of the CONCEAL project were to estimate the loss of acoustic communication space ('masking') that three whale species (fin, humpback and killer whales) may lose from chronic levels of anthropogenic noise, using existing and newly collected recordings from western Canadian waters, and to build statistical models that predict how individuals and populations might respond to that chronic loss of acoustic communication space. The project methods were iterative, in that they involved periodic progress reporting, seeking and incorporating feedback from biologists, acousticians and statisticians.

Twelve autonomous underwater recording units were deployed in important habitats for three threatened whale species. The units were retrieved and data were analysed, and a summary paper was submitted to describe ambient noise levels and associated masking metrics (Williams et al., submitted).

Two approaches were used to estimate energetic demands of endangered whales, to gauge the likely consequences of reducing prey available to whales. One approach estimated prey requirements of killer whales from captive feeding records (Williams et al., 2011), and the other explored decadal-scale linkages among prey abundance, body condition and pregnancy rates in North Atlantic fin whales (Williams et al., in press). Together, these products allow us to better predict how whales may respond to reduction in prey (through noise, overfishing or other anthropogenic stressors).

Advanced statistical methods were used to develop models of the dynamics of fin, humpback and killer whale populations to predict how these species would likely respond to human-driven changes in prey availability. This work has been presented at two seminars, and the authors are incorporating the resulting feedback before submitting the paper describing the methods. The analytical framework is explicitly modular, such that it can be adapted easily for other species and for use in other jurisdictions. Although the science is constructed using data collected from Canada, the interdisciplinary and collaborative approach uses this interdisciplinary study as an opportunity to cement long-term collaborations between European and North American researchers.

For catalysing new collaborations, the CONCEAL project has resulted in:

- a partnership with Danish scientists to compare acoustic behaviour of harbour porpoise in Canadian and Danish waters;
- new research with Australian and Canadian colleagues to develop methods to incorporate shipping noise into marine spatial planning processes;
- introduction of the concept of 'Quiet marine protected areas' at Zoological Society of London's High-Seas MPA workshop, 2nd international conference on 'Marine mammal protected areas', European Cetacean Society conference, scientific meeting of the international 'Quiet ocean experiment' in Paris and SOFI-MREKE workshop on 'Effects of marine anthropogenic noise' in Bristol;
- contributed to a successful funding proposal for a collaborative, interdisciplinary programme (PELAGIC) to map cetacean distribution globally;
- co-supervised Master project (L. Fouda, Imperial College London) on ship noise;
- incorporation of ocean noise as an important anthropogenic stressor in an interdisciplinary project on marine mammal management models with the National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (United States);
- adoption of the CONCEAL methods when assessing potential environmental impacts of expansion of Port Metro Vancouver on killer whales; and
- development of a review paper with statisticians at St Andrews on environmental impact assessment tools for ocean noise and marine mammals.

In addition to the papers published (described above under 'Work performed'), the CONCEAL project has made important contributions to improving our understanding of the basic biology of whales and expanded analytical frameworks for assessing the impacts of human activities on whales.

A key component is the project's quantification of the amount of prey individual fin whales require to put on sufficient blubber stores to become pregnant (Williams et al., in press). The team has presented working models (from prey to population dynamics) for fin, humpback and killer whales to biologists and statisticians in St Andrews, California and Vancouver, and is incorporating this peer feedback into the methods before submitting the paper to a journal. The most important result of this feedback and peer review has been to expand the scope of the original objectives to consider the cumulative impacts of multiple anthropogenic stressors, rather than ocean noise alone. As a result, the outputs of our project will be of interest to a much wider audience of managers and researchers than our original project intended.

In the process of developing long-term collaborations, the project has resulted in co-authored papers on porpoise acoustics in European and Canadian waters (Kyhn et al., in press) and incorporating shipping noise into marine spatial planning efforts (Erbe et al., 2012).

The project is expected to result in three additional products in the next 2 years:

1. a scientifically robust framework to evaluate the sustainability of cumulative impacts of multiple anthropogenic stressors to whales, including one paper at the science-policy interface;
2. new funding proposals with fisheries economists to quantify the value of ecosystem services and the economic costs and benefits of mitigation measures to reduce noise in the ocean, which treats whales, salmon and human use as a coupled socio-ecological system; and
3. explicit treatment of shipping noise with incentives for mitigation measures in Port Metro Vancouver's most recent expansion proposal.

Contacts: Dr Rob Williams ( via e-mail) Prof. Philip Hammond ( via e-mail)


Erbe, C., MacGillivray, A., and Williams, R. 2012. Mapping cumulative noise from shipping to inform marine spatial planning. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 132: EL423-EL428.

Kyhn, L. A., Tougaard, J., Beedholm, K., Jensen, F. H., Ashe, E., Williams, R., and Madsen, P. T. In press. Clicking in killer whale country: Narrow-band, high-frequency biosonar clicks of harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and Dall's porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli). PLoS ONE. Williams, R., Clark, C. W., Ponirakis, D., and Ashe, E. Submitted. Acoustic quality of critical habitats for three threatened whale populations. Animal Conservation.

Williams, R., Krkosek, M., Ashe, E., Branch, T. A., Clark, S., Hammond, P. S., Hoyt, E., et al. 2011.

Competing Conservation Objectives for Predators and Prey: Estimating Killer Whale Prey Requirements for Chinook Salmon. PLoS ONE, 6: e26738.

Williams, R., Vikingsson, G. A., Gislason, A., Lockyer, C., New, L., Thomas, L., and Hammond, P.

S. In press. Evidence for density-dependent changes in body condition and pregnancy rate of North Atlantic fin whales over four decades of varying environmental conditions. ICES Journal of Marine Science.