SMRU Consulting’s very own Cormac Booth will be presenting at the NAMMCO symposium on the Impacts of Human Disturbance on Arctic marine mammals

The symposium will be held at the University of Copenhagen between 13-15th October and will focus on the impacts of human disturbance, including noise and shipping activities, on the distribution, behaviour and conservation status of marine mammals in the Arctic, with a focus on belugas, narwhals and walrus. Cormac will be presenting on Tuesday 13th October with a talk entitled “Oceans of noise: Assessing risks to marine mammals in the face of uncertainty”. It looks like its going to be a very  interesting couple of days with attendees from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, NOAA and many others covering a range of topics such as: the impacts of shipping, whale watching, oil and gas activities, hunting and disturbance on Arctic marine mammals.

Here is the abstract for Cormac’s talk:

Human activities are increasing the level of noise in the oceans, causing widespread concern about the potential effects on marine mammals and marine ecosystems. Sound propagates efficiently through water and marine mammals rely on the use of sound to communicate with conspecifics, for predator avoidance, to locate and capture prey, mate selection and social interactions. Coupled with this, they have an acute sense of hearing with a high sensitivity over a wide frequency range. This reliance on sound in their general ecology makes marine mammals particularly vulnerable to the effects of underwater noise. Many marine activities generate significant underwater noise into the marine environment (e.g. explosive use, pile-driving, geophysical surveys, ship propeller noise etc.). Exposure to noise can have a range of effects depending on the sound type or received level. Loud, intense noise sources such as explosions have the potential to cause lethal physical non-auditory injury to marine mammals, while other noise sources can cause auditory damage or elicit behavioural responses (e.g. displacement and/or habitat exclusion). It is widely acknowledged that short-term behavioural responses may become biologically significant if animals are exposed for sustained periods of time, but the interpretation of the biological consequences of disturbance is limited by uncertainty about what constitutes a meaningful response, both at the individual and the population level.

As the Earth’s population grows, there is an increased demand for energy. The potential for the exploitation of both fossil fuels and renewable energy sources in the Arctic is being considered. With increased development and shipping, comes the need for impact assessment at project and strategic levels to determine the most sustainable path ahead. Risk assessment provides a framework to allow scientists, regulators, decision-makers, sound producers and conservationists to better understand of the effects of noise and to manage those effects, both on an individual and cumulative basis. In addition, such frameworks be used to identify key sensitivities and knowledge gaps to be filled and crucially the data that need to be collected, thus prioritising future research.

To address this problem, we have developed a generalised Population Consequences of Disturbance (PCoD) model (first proposed by a US Office of Naval Research working group), which uses stochastic population models to assess the long-term trajectory of both undisturbed and ‘disturbed’ (i.e. those exposed to a change in their environment – e.g. increased noise) populations the determine the population level impacts of disturbance. In the absence of empirical data to inform the link between disturbance and vital rates, we elicited expert opinion to provide provisional data for these high priority questions. Our approach allows the daily effects of disturbance to be scaled up to cover the entire duration of a development, and the cumulative effects of multiple developments on populations can be evaluated. This tool is primarily focused on the impacts of noise disturbance, but the generalised framework has broad applications across geographic regions and industries. We cannot fully understand the population consequence of disturbance for marine mammals without more reliable, quantitative and evidence-based data. The interim PCoD framework therefore can be used to identify key sensitivities and knowledge gaps to be filled and crucially the data that need to be collected, thus prioritising future research.