Noise of Arctic sea vessels could interfere with whale communication

As Arctic shipping traffic increases, vessel disturbance could impact the social behaviours, distribution and long-term survival of marine mammals such as belugas and bowhead whales, which rely on a quiet environment to communicate and forage, warns a new study led by University of Victoria marine biologist Lauren McWhinnie.

Published in the Ocean and Coastal Management, the study calls for precautionary measures to minimize the negative impacts of increased vessel traffic in the Arctic – such as noise and ship strikes.

“We can start by trying to apply the lessons learned from vessel management in heavily trafficked southern regions while we still have the opportunity to do things right in the Arctic,” said post-doctoral researcher McWhinnie.

“A voluntary restriction on vessel speed will reduce the likelihood of ship strikes and contribute to reducing noise levels. Other trial studies have shown that slower vessels pose less risk to marine mammals.”

The researchers examined management plans from more than 1,000 international Marine Protected Areas, and as a result identified and evaluated 14 vessel management tools to assess their potential suitability for use in an Arctic environment.

The study area was in the eastern Beaufort Sea of the western Canadian Arctic, near the western entrance of the Northwest Passage, a crucial area for managing ship traffic in the future.