A newly published report recommends expanding vessel speed restrictions to include larger swaths of North Atlantic right whale habitat. (Mahoney Robinson/New England Aquarium)

Whales: Human created noise adds to threats

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Canada’s agency charged with overseeing the status of biodiversity in this country has just released a report on marine noise and the effect on three whale species.

Hal Whitehead, of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and co-chair of the marine mammals sub-committee said that growing levels of noise from ships, navy vessels and ongoing seismic exploration for oil and gas is impeding the whales communication and survival. This may be especially so for the Sowerby’s beaked whale. which uses sound to navigate and to hunt, and the human-generated noise impairs the whale’s ability to find its way.

Following a meeting this weekend in St John’s Newfoundland the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada  (COSEWIC) reported on the sei whale, fin whale and Sowerby’s beaked whale.  They say that whales evolved in a much quieter sea, and that marine noise from human activity is continually increasing.

Visual tracking of ship traffic 2016-17 from marinetraffic.com (CNW COSEWIC)

Visual tracking of ship traffic in the North Atlantic 2016-17 from marinetraffic.com (CNW COSEWIC)

COSEWIC lists the global travelling sei whale as “endangered” while the Sowerby’s beaked whale, a slower, smaller and deeper water whale was assessed as being of “special concern”. The fin whale stays closer to shores but can range from the U.S to Canada and even to Greenland with populations in the Pacific as well. Both Atlantic and Pacifica populations were also listed as being of “special concern”.

While commercial hunting of the sei whale ended in the 1970’s their numbers have not improved which led to the classification of “engangered”.

A Sowerby’s beaked whale. especially threatened by human generated noise (Whitehead Lab-Dalhousie U)

Dangers continue to be posed to all whales from fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes from the increasing number of large ships.

There was a slight positive note in the more Sowerby’s whales have been seen in the Gully submarine canyon off the coast of Nova Scotia which was declared a marine protected area. Hal Whitehead suggested that with that protection, noise levels there may be lower, and suggested such refuges should be expanded even into international waters.

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