Shipping noise interrupts whales’ communication

Photo credit: Artem Podrez

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition, and Honorary Chair, Quiet American Skies

Over 40 years ago, I conducted two studies that examined the impacts of train noise on children’s reading scores when they attended school near elevated train tracks. That research revealed that train noise intruded on children’s learning. As a result, the New York City Transit Authority abated the noise on the tracks and the NYC Board of Education placed acoustic ceilings in the classrooms adjacent to the tracks. The result was quieter classrooms that improved students’ reading scores. Thus, I was not surprised to read that beluga whales’ ability to communicate with each other was being impeded by commercial ship noise. Like humans, other animals need quiet conditions to thrive.

Recent research from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game documented the vast vocal range of Alaska’s Cook Inlet beluga whale population. The study, published at the end of November in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, found that commercial ship noise masked the whales’ most commonly-used calls.

Whales need quieter conditions so that they can navigate, find prey, avoid predators and maintain group cohesion. Cook Inlet was identified as especially dangerous to beluga whales due to high noise levels. This inlet, home to many of the whales, exposes them to this noise year-round. Researchers spent a year recording beluga whale calls and now feel confident that the data have provided them with a good understanding of how ship transit affects the beluga whales’ vocal exchange. Lead author Arial Brewer added that every time a commercial vessel travels through the Port of Alaska, the communication between whales is impacted.  

The article ends with the hope that current research will lead to further studies on how noise impacts beluga whales. But I would have liked to see a few suggestions as to how to quiet the environment for whales now. Interestingly, when I conducted the study cited above, further studies were not called for. Instead, local government took action to lessen the noise.  

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