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Research Technical Report

Nowhere to Go: Noise Impact Assessments for Marine Mammal Populations with High Site Fidelity

Forney, K.A., B.L. Southall, E. Slooten, S. Dawson, A.J. Read, R.W. Baird, and R.L. Brownell Jr. (May 2017)

Endangered Species Research 32:391-413


As awareness of the effects of anthropogenic noise on marine mammals has grown, research has broadened from evaluating physiological responses, including injury and mortality, to considering effects on behavior and acoustic communication. Most mitigation efforts attempt to minimize injury by enabling animals to move away as noise levels are increased gradually. Recent experiences demonstrate that this approach is inadequate or even counterproductive for small, localized marine mammal populations, for which displacement of animals may itself cause harm. Seismic surveys within the ranges of harbor porpoise Phocoena phocoena in California and Māui dolphin Cephalorhynchus hectori maui in New Zealand highlight the need to explicitly consider biological risks posed by displacement during survey planning, monitoring, and mitigation. Consequences of displacement are poorly understood, but likely include increased stress and reduced foraging success, with associated effects on survival and reproduction. In some cases, such as the Critically Endangered Māui dolphin, displacement by seismic activities risks exposing the remaining 55 dolphins to bycatch in nearby fisheries. Similar concerns about military and industrial activities exist for island-associated species such as melon-headed whales Peponocephala electra in Hawai'i; shelf-break associated species such as Cuvier’s beaked whales Ziphius cavirostris off the US Atlantic coast, and whales foraging in coastal habitats, such as the Critically Endangered western gray whale Eschrichtius robustus. We present an expanded framework for considering disturbance effects that acknowledges scientific uncertainty, providing managers and operators a more robust means of assessing and avoiding potential harm associated with both displacement and direct effects of intense anthropogenic noise exposure.