‘Sounding’ Canada’s Pacific Ocean

Grunts, coughs, clicks and types of FaRTs (Fast Repetitive Ticks) are among a dozen sounds that fishes make. These sounds, though less eloquent in name and sound than the enchanting songs of the humpback and the serene calls of Orcas, nonetheless serve an important purpose. The use of sound is critical for the survival of many marine species. Just as light and sight for humans are two of our primary ways to make sense of our environment on land, sound and hearing serve the same function in an ocean largely deprived of light. Marine animals use sound both actively and passively to socialize, find food, avoid predators and ‘echo-locate’.
Researchers and citizen scientists in British Columbia, have been listening to sounds from whales and dolphins to better understand how these animals behave and to identify their preferred habitats and movements. These ocean listeners, on our coast and elsewhere in the world, are observing and reporting a concerning trend – increasing noise in the ocean that can be traced back to human activities. Shipping, boat traffic, seismic exploration, naval activity, oil and gas development, wind farms and other activities make the ocean not just a busy place but also a noisy place. Just as smog can cloud out air and light, causing reduced visibility, the fog of human noise in the ocean is clouding out the ‘sound’ space that animals like whales and dolphins need to effectively make use of sound for their survival. Understanding the nature and extent of this problem and learning about the ways in which it may be addressed is the first step to finding solutions. WWF took that step earlier this month.

John A. Hildebrand, Professor of Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego. Photo credit: Alan Dolan/WWF

To get a better understanding of the levels of noise, monitoring capabilities and needs for information and management of noise pollution in the ocean off Canada’s West Coast, WWF hosted a 2 day workshop on Jan 31 and Feb 1 in Vancouver. This gathering, the first of its kind in Canada focused on the Pacific Ocean, brought together local scientists, researchers, citizen scientists, government regulators, leading experts on ocean noise from the US and Australia, representatives from the Ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, experts in environmental assessments and those involved with supporting marine planning.
From the diversity of presentations, it emerged that B.C. was most among the world’s most listened-to coastline. These listening capabilities range from a series of small local listening hydrophones (devices that record underwater sound), to large remotely-operated hydrophone networks and several temporary deployments of movable hydrophones that have been used periodically. We learned about approaches noise mapping in US waters and how it may be incorporated into Marine Spatial Planning. Preliminary results from cutting edge work commissioned by WWF to better give a picture of the ‘noise footprint’ from shipping activities in BC waters were presented. It became clear that the critical habitats of some of our most threatened species – the southern resident Orca whales – lie in one of the noisiest parts of our coast. Some of our quietist areas lie within the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Area Reserve, and along the north central coast where recovering populations of humpback and fin whales are beginning to thrive. This is also an area where many proposals for industrial development including tanker traffic would introduce noise pollution.
The workshop demonstrated that noise management is an active field. One that is ripe with opportunities to do novel things to reduce noise pollution and its effects on marine animals. We heard how important and naturally quiet areas can be made into acoustic refuges. Much like residential neighborhoods that protect the integrity of human living space, these refuges would protect quiet areas and critical habitats. We learned of measures that ports could take to reduce noise during their construction; and examples of even more novel initiatives some ports are contemplating, such as providing incentives to owners to reduce the number of noisy ships through better engineering. There were real world success stories: In Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, shipping levels are being reduced through changes to shipping lanes to help reduce noise masking Right whale communication. What became clear was the opportunity B.C. has to play a leading role in noise management. There exists the underwater listening capacities, the network of quiet areas, and the progressive ports required to make it a world class leader in this field.
Among the recommendations emerging from the workshop was to better integrate B.C.’s listening networks of hydrophones. We are pleased to report that the workshop spawned a group of committed people to help move this forward. Another recommendation urged the establishment of natural baseline of noise levels for the parts of our coast that don’t have them. This includes depicting scenarios of noise levels from the proposed industrial activities being undertaken on B.C.’s north coast. It became clear that there is an immediate need to include consideration of anthropogenic   noise in how we plan out and make use of the ocean.
A hearty thanks to 35 committed pioneers who participated in the workshop, whose work has helped chart ways to collectively address noise pollution. Many cities have managed to reduce air pollution and improve air quality, and we feel it is quite possible to do the same for noise pollution in the sea. Stay tuned for updates on our ongoing work. Even better, join us and support this work to help make a ‘sound’ ocean, one where whales, dolphins, fishes and the others animals that depend on the use of sound will continue to thrive.