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A Brief Review of Known Effects of Noise on Marine Mammals


Marine mammals, especially cetaceans, are highly vocal and dependent on sound for almost all aspects of their lives, e.g. food-finding, reproduction, communication, detection of predators/hazards, and navigation. They are thus likely sensitive to anthropogenic noise. Sound has a large potential area of impact, sometimes covering millions of square kilometers of ocean with levels high enough to cause possible disturbance in marine mammals. There can be great variation in the reaction of marine mammals to noise, depending on such factors as species, individual, age, sex, prior experience with noise, and behavioral state. Species with similar hearing capabilities can respond differently to the same noise. Observed effects of noise on marine mammals include: changes in vocalizations, respiration, swim speed, diving, and foraging behavior; displacement, avoidance, shifts in migration path, stress, hearing damage, and strandings. Responses of marine mammals to noise can often be subtle and barely detectable, and there are many documented cases of apparent tolerance of noise. However, marine mammals showing no obvious avoidance or changes in activities may still suffer important, even lethal, consequences. Acoustically-induced strandings may displace a local beaked whale ( Ziphiidae ) population (for an extended period if not permanently) or even possibly eliminate most of its members. As beaked whales seem to be found in small, possibly genetically isolated, resident populations, even a transient and localized acoustic impact could have prolonged population consequences. Observed reactions to noise in marine mammals could theoretically result in impacts such as decreased foraging efficiency, higher energetic demands, less group cohesion, higher predation, decreased reproduction, and thus seriously impact the population. Alternatively, they may be harmless. However, noise is thought to contribute to at least some species’ declines or lack of recovery (Southern resident killer whales ( Orcinus orca ) , western gray whales ( Eschrichtius robustus ) off Sakhalin).

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