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Anthropogenic Sound

Sound is the primary sense for cetaceans.  Hearing and vocalisation are fundamental to successful foraging, migration and reproduction for all cetacean species.  This means that increased human-generated or ‘anthropogenic’ noise is a critical factor when considering potential threat to cetacean populations.  Anthropogenic noise can be classed as either acute or chronic.  Acute noise such as seismic surveys or military sonar is high in intensity and short in duration. Chronic noise refers to low intensity but generally increased noise in the marine environment, for example from shipping and industrial activity.

The IWC has been concerned with this issue for many years. In 2004 a mini-symposium was held to consider the issue of anthropogenic noise, and a 2006 meeting focused on potential impacts of seismic surveys to various whale populations.  In related efforts, several IWC Scientific Committee members contributed to the development of guidelines for mitigation and monitoring when conducting seismic surveys off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Federation, which is a primary feeding area for gray whales. The IWC also facilitated an independent review of an unusual mass mortality of melon-headed whales that occurred in 2008.

More recently, the Scientific Committee's Environmental Concerns Group has been tracking the efforts of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) CetSound program to map cetacean soundscapes.  Related to this effort the IWC co-sponsored a joint workshop in 2014 entitled Predicting Soundfields - Global Soundscape Modelling to Inform Management of Cetaceans and Anthropogenic Noise.   Twenty six international experts from 11 countries gathered to discuss regional and ocean-basin scale underwater sound field mapping techniques.  The aim was to provide support for decision-makers seeking to characterise, monitor and manage the potential impacts of chronic or cumulative anthropogenic noise on marine animals.

In 2016, the Environmental Concerns Group of the IWC Scientific Committee will focus on examining concerns related to the 'masking' effect of anthropogenic sound on cetaceans.  Masking is the term used when other noise(s) block or 'mask' the sounds on which whales rely.  Specifically the working group will:

  • Update progress made on the effects of masking sound from commercial shipping.
  • Provide an overview of a modelling application know as the Population Consequences of Disturbance model (known as PCoD).
  • Explore ways that the PCoD or similar frameworks could be expanded to predict population consequences of 'masking' sounds important to cetaceans.

Read more

To read the report of the 2014 workshop click here.

To read the review of the melon-headed whale mass stranding click here.

To read more about the guidelines for mitigation and monitoring of seismic surveys off Sakhalin Island click here.

To read more about the US NOAA's CetSound program click here.

To read about the PCoD model click here.