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Physical and Acoustic Disturbance Priority Threat

Map of Canada showing the general area where priority marine threats occur in the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Physical and Acoustic Disturbance Priority Threat

In the oceans surrounding Canada’s coastlines, physical and acoustic disturbances are a threat to a range of marine species at risk, including marine mammals, marine fish and sea turtles. Physical and acoustic disturbances are caused by ship strikes and underwater noises generated by human activities. In the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, these disturbances are greatest in areas of high industrial, commercial and recreational activity. In the Arctic Ocean, these physical and acoustic disturbances are a result of increased shipping and tourism activities. These disturbances can lead to the displacement of individuals or entire populations of marine species at risk, limiting their access to important habitats used for foraging, haul-outs, or reproduction. With a wide variety of physical and acoustic disturbances present throughout the Canadian oceans, the Canada Nature Fund for Aquatic Species at Risk (CNFASAR) is funding several projects that aim to better understand and mitigate these threats and contribute to the recovery of marine species at risk.

Conservation efforts currently underway

Research focused on the impacts of physical and acoustic disturbances on marine species is a relatively new field of study. In order to better understand and mitigate these threats, several CNFASAR funded projects involve research and monitoring to collect new information that can be used to support conservation activities. A four-year research project conducted by the Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM) is developing an alternative to at-sea observation and is supporting long-term monitoring and research efforts. The project is engaging organizations in conservation and research activities to better understand marine mammal behaviour and reduce disturbances in the water caused by recreational boaters. These groups are working towards a common goal of raising awareness of the impacts of acoustic and physical disturbances in order to better protect whales throughout their ranges.

Making information on species at risk accessible to key stakeholders and the public is essential in building widespread support and informing effective recovery actions. A project led by the Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is accomplishing this by creating an online map of special marine areas in the province, which highlights species at risk, their habitat, threats and other educational information. This map is informed by data gathered from workshops with a variety of groups including scientists, academia, government, non-governmental organizations, Indigenous groups and fishers.

The Pikialasorsuaq region in the Canadian Arctic is a highly biologically productive marine ecosystem that is home to a number of aquatic species at risk of significance to the ecosystem and Inuit communities. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (Canada) Inc. has conducted a project in Pikialasorsuaq, or North Water Polynya (area of year-round open water surrounded by sea-ice cover) to facilitate discussions between Inuit leadership to develop a management plan on the future use and conservation of the Pikialasorsuaq area. This project has undertaken the initial planning and partnership development to best position the next steps for future projects with communities in the Pikialasorsuaq and develop a plan for species at risk that is embedded in a larger overall management plan.

At-risk Bowhead Whale populations are known to frequent areas of the Canadian Arctic Ocean where they are likely to interact with vessels. To assess and mitigate the impacts of shipping activities, the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada has initiated a project to assess the effects of acoustic disturbances to Bowhead Whales. Project goals include determining the summer distribution of Bowhead Whales to evaluate their exposure to underwater noise, assessing how Bowheads react to underwater noise, evaluating their response and developing model mitigation strategies. It is anticipated that this project will help inform wildlife management boards in the management of underwater noise associated with shipping.

On the central and south coast of British Columbia, a collaborative research network is being assembled by the North Coast Cetacean Society that will allow a number of organizations with whale expertise to contribute to and share information on a coast-wide information system. This network is providing coastal British Columbia researchers with a platform to collect acoustic and visual data on marine mammals using consistent protocols and standards to ensure the long-term integrity and quality of the scientific data collected. The shared information will allow the network of researchers to compare the impacts of vessel traffic on at-risk marine mammals in areas that differ environmentally and acoustically.

In recent years, it has become increasingly evident that whales are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes and noise resulting from shipping activities. To address this threat, Upun-LGL Limited is undertaking a project that is using vessel-based infrared camera systems to detect marine mammals near seismic vessels in marine areas adjacent to Newfoundland and Labrador. In collaboration with the Nunatsiavut Government, this research project is providing technical training, data analyses and reporting on findings that can be used to improve the design of mitigation measures and reduce the impacts of physical and acoustic disturbances caused by vessels. A similar project by the World Wildlife Fund Canada, in collaboration with the Gitga’at First Nation and the North Coast Cetacean Society, is advancing research on whale-vessel interactions along the north coast of British Columbia. Through a variety of activities, such as ambient ship noise monitoring, the development of an acoustic whale detection and marine vessel tracking tool and updated species distribution and habitat maps, this project is developing and testing mitigation measures to reduce vessel strike risk and noise impacts to local at-risk whale species. With this advanced understanding of whale-vessel interactions, conservation organizations and the shipping industry will be better equipped to minimize the physical and acoustic threats facing at-risk marine mammal species.

Using a different approach to evaluate the threat of acoustic disturbances on marine mammals off the coast of British Columbia, the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust is conducting a research project that is investigating the ecological significance of marine “quiet” places that have little human noise disturbances. Through the identification of patterns of human noise and the development of habitat soundscape signatures, the project aims to reduce human noise disturbances in marine habitats and evaluate the importance of acoustic refugia.

The Ocean Wise Conservation Association is building on 30 years of conservation-based research to mitigate acoustic and physical threats to marine mammals. This project is improving and expanding on the WhaleReport Alert System which reports real-time whale sightings along the British Columbia coast to inform commercial vessels and reduce the risk of acoustic disturbance and ship strikes. The project is also expanding drone-based aerial photogrammetry studies to broaden knowledge related to the impact of fisheries on the food supply and health of Killer Whales.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s CNFASAR is supporting projects that are conducting research, promoting stewardship practices and developing and improving conservation tools to advance our understanding of the threats posed by physical and acoustic disturbances. While working collaboratively with partners from governments, Indigenous groups, academia, industry, environmental organizations and the general public, project leads are improving our ability to protect Canada’s marine species at risk.

Learn more about projects to address this threat

Special marine areas in Newfoundland and Labrador interactive online platform

Special marine areas in Newfoundland and Labrador interactive online platform

Recipient: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter (CPAWS-NL)

Map of Newfoundland and Labrador. See text that follows.
An example of the Map’s potential: highlighting layers of data to better understand their relationship

Project goal: This three-year project is building upon two editions of the “Special Marine Areas in Newfoundland and Labrador” guide produced by CPAWS-NL. Using this guide’s wealth of knowledge, outside sources, a workshop, and on-going research, CPAWS-NL is creating a “Special Marine Areas in Newfoundland and Labrador Interactive Online Map” (SMA Interactive Map). The SMA Interactive Map highlights the eco-regions of the province (as well as the 140 special areas highlighted within the guide), each region’s species (with an emphasis on species at risk), threats (focusing on fishery interactions, physical and acoustic disturbances, and shipping), protections currently in place, climate change threats (e.g. sea level rise) and other features that helps to create an overall picture of the ecosystem.

The SMA Interactive Map aims to become an effective user-friendly outreach, educational and decision-making tool for an array of users including: (1) National, Provincial and Municipal Governments; (2) academia and researchers; (3) ocean industries; and (4) the general public. Additionally, this map aims to be a useful tool to those organizations carrying out Marine Spatial Planning initiatives for Newfoundland and Labrador and will create an opportunity for outreach and education for all users.

Fund Allocation: $219,920

Time Frame: 3 years

Species that benefit from this project:

Use of an infrared-camera system to detect marine mammal species at risk near an airgun array

Use of an infrared-camera system to detect marine mammal species at risk near an airgun array

Recipient: Upun-LGL Limited

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(A) The WhaleCam-90 infrared (IR) camera module developed by Toyon Research Corporation. (B) An IR image of a whale blow recorded using the WhaleCam-90. (C) The seismic vessel (PGS’ R/V Ramform Atlas) on which the IR camera system will be deployed and tested

Project goal: This three-year project is contributing to the recovery of marine mammal species at risk by assisting with the development, deployment and testing of a commercially-viable, vessel-based infrared (VB-IR) camera system that can be used aboard seismic vessels offshore Newfoundland and Labrador (and elsewhere) to improve current efforts to detect marine mammals. Increased detection capabilities, particularly at night, will assist with mitigation measures designed to minimize potential auditory effects from airgun sound on marine mammals. The VB-IR camera system also has potential for use on other commercial vessels (i.e., cargo, tanker and ferry) to detect large whales and minimize the risk of ship strikes.

Upun-LGL Limited is collaborating with the Nunatsiavut Government on this applied research project. Parties will work together through technical training, data analyses, reporting, and public dissemination of the findings.

Fund Allocation: $307,500

Time Frame: 3 years

Species that benefit from this project:

Media announcement:

Government of Canada introduces new, additional measures to protect the North Atlantic right whale

Sentier Béluga: a network of "connected" land-based observation sites to replace at-sea observation

Sentier Béluga: a network of "connected" land-based observation sites to replace at-sea observation

Recipient: Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM)

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Aerial view of a pod of St. Lawrence belugas
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Naturalist leading an activity on the “Fenêtre sur les Bélugas” video series at the Halte du Béluga lookout point in Sainte-Marguerite Bay

Project objective: The goal of this four-year project is to reduce physical and acoustic disturbances to marine mammals at risk by developing an innovative solution to replace at-sea observation and by supporting monitoring efforts and long-term research.

This project will mobilize a number of stakeholders involved in conservation, education and research to gain a better understanding of marine mammal behaviour and reduce disturbances caused by recreational boaters. These groups will work together to increase awareness of the situation of whales in order to provide better protection for them in the marine park and throughout their range.

Fund Allocation: $1,362,050

Time Frame: 4 years

Species that benefit from this project:

Pikialasorsuaq implementation – planning for community capacity and inuit-led monitoring of species at risk

Pikialasorsuaq implementation – planning for community capacity and inuit-led monitoring of species at risk

Recipient: Inuit Circumpolar Council (Canada) Inc.

Project goal: This one-year project involves facilitating discussions between Inuit leadership to develop a management plan on the future use and conservation of the Pikialasorsuaq area. This project aims to undertake the initial planning and partnership development to best position another Inuit organization to undertake future projects with communities in the Pikialasorsuaq and develop a plan for species at risk that is embedded in a larger overall management plan and work to enhance monitoring.

Fund Allocation: $11,500

Time Frame: 1 years

Species that benefit from this project:

Assessing and managing acoustic disturbance to bowhead whales

Assessing and managing acoustic disturbance to bowhead whales

Recipient: Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

Project goal: This four-year project has three main objectives including to (1) determine the summer distribution of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) population of Bowhead Whales and to measure their exposure to underwater noise; (2) assess how Bowheads react to underwater noise from ships; and (3) to develop model management strategies to reduce underwater noise in key BCB and Eastern Canada-West Greenland (ECWG) population Bowhead areas with recommendations.

Acoustic monitoring is helping to update and clarify the spatial and temporal distribution of the populations, which will help wildlife managers and co-management boards when making decisions about human activities that will disturb bowhead whales. Acoustic monitoring is providing the first estimate of underwater noise from ships in key Bowhead areas in the western Canadian Arctic, as well as estimates of background noise levels. The assessment of Bowhead behaviour in response to ships and ship noise is providing valuable information, such as estimates of increased energy expenditure when the whales encounter ships.

Finally, acoustic modeling of various management and mitigation scenarios is providing wildlife managers and co-management boards with information on how to minimize the amount of underwater noise to which Bowhead Whales are exposed.

Fund Allocation: $1,048,491

Time Frame: 4 years

Species that benefit from this project:

The Sydney Inlet acoustic refugium monitoring

The Sydney Inlet acoustic refugium monitoring

Recipient: Clayoquot Biosphere Trust

Project goal: This four-year project increases awareness of both natural sounds and human made noise and their intersection with important feeding habitats for at risk marine mammals. To do this, the project is carrying out research to understand the ecological significance of ‘quiet’ places that are rich in natural sounds and have very little human noise disturbance (anthrophony).

This project consists of gathering baseline bioacoustic data for the identification of patterns of human noise disturbance and the development of the first set of habitat soundscape signatures for at-risk marine mammals in the waters of Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia. Recommendations will be developed that are intended to guide (1) the reduction of human noise disturbance in marine habitats and (2) evaluate the effectiveness of an acoustic refugium (sanctuary) in Sydney Inlet, a known feeding area for several species of at risk marine mammals, and develop management recommendations for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, community partners, and marine industry stakeholders in the region.

Marine soundscape knowledge, developed from the bioacoustics data is being promoted, shared and exchanged throughout the community of marine-use sectors within the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve region. A learning network is also being promoted, with a focus on the reduction of acoustic disruption from human activities in at-risk marine mammal feeding habitats.

Fund Allocation: $388,052

Time Frame: 4 years

Species that benefit from this project:

Ships, Whales & Acoustics in Gitga’at Traditional Territory (SWAG)

Ships, Whales & Acoustics in Gitga’at Traditional Territory (SWAG)

Recipient: World Wildlife Fund Canada

Project goal: This four-year project is a collaboration between the Gitga’at First Nation, the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS) and the World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada) to advance research on whale/vessel interactions. This project aims to develop real-time tracking tools for whales and ships and collaboratively develop mitigation measures to reduce the impact of commercial shipping (e.g. noise and vessel strikes) on four populations of at-risk whale species in one of the region’s most important whale areas, the Squally Channel-Lewis Passage in Gitga’at traditional territory on the north coast of British Columbia.

To meet this objective, this project is: (1) monitoring ambient and shipping noise levels; (2) developing a real-time acoustic whale detection and a marine vessel tracking tool; (3) updating distribution and habitat use maps for each species and combining these with observations of whale behavioural response to vessels to better understand risk of current and future vessel traffic; (4) undertaking outreach to the industry and local community on whales and interactions with shipping; and (5) collaboratively developing and testing mitigation measures to reduce strike risk and/or noise impacts.

The project will engage the Gitga’at community and the shipping industry to collaboratively develop tools and implement mitigation measures to reduce risks of ship strikes and acoustic disturbance to at-risk populations of whales in the project area. The project will also build local capacity to continue to monitor and manage future impacts to these whales and form collaborations that will benefit the recovery of these species.

Fund Allocation: $1,362,938

Time Frame: 4 years

Species that benefit from this project:

A BC-Wide hydrophone network for cetacean habitat monitoring and stewardship

A BC-Wide hydrophone network for cetacean habitat monitoring and stewardship

Recipient: North Coast Cetacean Society

Project goal: This four-year project supports a collaboration between organizations that operate hydrophones (i.e. underwater microphones) and research labs on the Central and South Coast of British Columbia.

“The Network” that this project establishes aims to enable organizations with expertise in whale research to build, maintain and contribute to a shared, coast-wide information system. This creates the ability to collect acoustic and visual data on marine mammal activity using consistent standards and protocols via professionally maintained and calibrated equipment. High quality, comparable datasets are currently being gathered and archived by all Network members using one server to preserve long-term integrity and make it searchable and available for research, management, stewardship and educational purposes. This acoustic database will allow researchers to compare impacts of vessel traffic on at risk marine mammals in areas that differ environmentally and acoustically, and assess how the ocean soundscape is changing over time.

As we gain a greater understanding of the impacts of underwater anthropogenic noise on marine life, this hydrophone network will shape and serve society’s ecological goals of protecting the marine environment with an emphasis on species at risk.

Fund Allocation: $1,800,000

Time Frame: 4 years

Species that benefit from this project:

Building on 30 years of conservation-based research to mitigate threats to at-risk marine mammal populations

Building on 30 years of conservation-based research to mitigate threats to at-risk marine mammal populations

Recipient: Ocean Wise Conservation Association

Project goal: This four-year project is addressing two priority marine threats to aquatic species at risk in the coastal waters of British Columbia: physical and acoustic disturbance and fishing interactions. To do this, the project will first improve the WhaleReport Alert System, which is a tool that shares real-time whale sightings with commercial vessels to prompt them to minimize disturbance to nearby whales. This system is being expanded further north along the BC coast to increase the number of sightings-reports in the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii. This project aims to reduce the risk of acoustic disturbance and ship strikes for marine mammals and reptiles.

Additionally, this project is working understand the impacts of fisheries on the Resident Killer Whales’ declining food supply through the expansion of drone-based aerial photogrammetry studies from Vancouver Island’s northeastern coast to pods that use more northerly waters along BC’s Central Coast from Johnstone Strait to Northern Haida Gwaii. The expansion of these studies aims to bridge the knowledge gaps related to the impacts of fisheries on the nutritional status and health of Killer Whales and can be used to inform management decisions for Chinook Salmon, the primary food source of the Southern Resident Killer Whale.

Fund Allocation: $440,000

Time Frame: 4 years

Species that benefit from this project:

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