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The Threat of Underwater Noise on Whales: Management in Light of Scientific Limitations

Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research & German Society of Polar Research
Publication Date
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Psychology


Polarforschung 72 (2/3), 99 - 101, 2002 (erschienen 2004) The Threat ofUnderwater Noise on Whales: Management in Light of Scientific Limitations by Linda Weilgart' and Hai Whitehead' There is no longer any question that noise can significantly impact individual marine mammals, even to the point of kill- ing them (BALCOMB & CLARIDGE 2001, NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE & UNITED STATES NAVY 2001). The dif- ficult question before us now is: does noise affect the health of populations and of ecosystems? This is an important issue that seems often forgotten in our efforts to gather more data on individual reactions. So, noise can affect anatomy (hearing loss), physiology (it can theoretically trigger "the bends"; HOUSER et al. 2001), behaviour (change in dive pattern), and psychology (stress, avoidance of areas which were previously loud). Ifwe are concerned about animal welfare, then all these could have impacts on the welfare of an animal. If we are concerned about populations, then all these factors could affect the population of a focal species, but in addition, they could affect the populations of other species. If the focal spe- cies changes its behaviour relative to predators 01' prey, then that impacts other species as well. lf we are concerned about ecosystems, then these impacts on the populations of several species could affect ecosystem function. These first effects fall under the area of population biology, and the second ones are in the area of community ecology. And yet, only the anatomy, physiology, and behaviour - mainly behaviour - of individuals exposed to noise have been studied up to this point. If one considers the picture portrayed above, one can see how many interrelationships and links are already present, and then remember that this only represents one focal species. If one considers more species, the picture gets vastly more complex. The problems we are facing, then, in trying to study the ef- fects of noise on whales in the open ocean are: there are too

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