We were excited to read the recent publication by Erbe et al. (2019) published in ‘Frontiers in Marine Science’, which tackles how we might manage the effects of underwater noise on marine mammals in Antarctica.

The soundscape of the Southern Ocean is quite unique in comparison to other oceans, with underwater sound propagation influenced by cold water temperatures and ice cover. Audible sounds are a unique combination of ice noise, weather events and Antarctic fauna, as well as anthropogenic sounds. Twenty-four marine mammal species live within this unique acoustic environment in the Southern and Antarctic Ocean, with these areas key foraging or breeding areas for many of those species. Some of these species are listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN, e.g. the Antarctic blue whale, whilst others are listed as ‘endangered’, e.g. the pygmy blue whale and fin whale, or as ‘data deficient’, e.g. the strap-toothed beaked whale and killer whale (iucnredlist.org). Information on the abundance and distribution of these animals within Antarctica is generally limited, adding complexity on how best to assess the impacts of underwater noise on these animals.

When planning any activity in the Antarctic Treaty area, the protection of the Antarctic environment, including its marine mammal species, must be considered as stipulated by the Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty. This includes any activity which may cause noise, such as shipping, geophysical research or construction (for example, of the scientific research base).

In order to define areas of research to prioritise to allow us to best answer such questions and to allow for development of appropriate management measures, Erbe et al. (2019) held a workshop with 29 international experts on marine mammals, asking what they viewed as the most important research need(s) for Antarctic marine mammals with regards to underwater noise. The highest ranked research needs were:

  1. Better data on abundance and distribution of Antarctic marine mammals, with particular urgency to identify areas of high and low abundance
  2. Hearing data for Antarctic marine mammals, in particular a mysticete (baleen whale) audiogram
  3. An assessment of the effectiveness of various noise mitigation options

Hopefully future research can now be steered towards these requirements to allow for proper assessment of the effects of any activities that may produce noise pollution in Antarctic waters, and to ensure the continued conservation and protection of this unique soundscape.

The full paper can be found here; https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00647/full

Reference

Erbe, C., Dähne, M., Gordon, J., Herata, H., Houser, D.S., Koschinski, S., Leaper, R.C., McCauley, R., Miller, B., Müller, M. & Murray, A. (2019). Managing the effects of noise from ship traffic, seismic surveying and construction on marine mammals in Antarctica. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6, p.647.

Featured image obtained from Erbe et al. (2019)