Ship noise could change marine mammals’ behaviour, research suggests

A single ship passing overhead could compare to a loud rock concert, says underwater noise expert

A bowhead whale breaches the water near Point Barrow, Alaska. (Kate Stafford / University of Washington / CC BY-SA)

By Mélanie Ritchot

Updated on Tuesday, May 25 at 3:15 p.m.

An increase in ships passing through Tallurutiup Imanga — a national marine conservation area at the north end of Baffin Island — is causing underwater noise to reach a level that could affect marine mammals’ hearing and behaviour, new research suggests.

The study, led by Ottawa-based researcher Zuzanna Kochanowicz, looked at the potential impacts of underwater ship noise on narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, and found Eclipse Sound and Milne Inlet could be the noisiest for marine mammals.

Inuit knowledge was combined with western science and noise modelling — estimates based on ships passing through certain areas — to get the results, which were published May 8 in the journal Marine Policy in an article titled “Using western science and Inuit knowledge to model ship-source noise exposure for cetaceans (marine mammals) in Tallurutiup Imanga (Lancaster Sound), Nunavut, Canada.”

Inuit contributed to the research in many areas, including identifying the areas where marine mammals live.

“It’s not something you would just get from satellite imagery,” said Kochanowicz, who led the research while getting a master’s degree at the University of Ottawa. “They’ve known these populations for so many years.”

Kochanowicz said the findings weren’t exactly surprising, given the proximity of Baffinland’s Mary River mine and its port at Milne Inlet.

Zuzanna Kochanowicz (who goes by Zuzia) recently published findings on the impacts of ship-source noise on marine mammal in Tallurutiup Imanga. (Photo courtesy of Zuzanna Kochanowicz)

“We knew there would be high traffic and high potential impacts for noise pollution, near the mine,” she said.

Noise from shipping traffic may end up scaring away marine animals to other areas, she said, “which means the communities and the Inuit who are hunting won’t be able to find them in the same areas they usually do.”

Loud underwater noise can also change the animals’ behaviour.

“They might not notice the predators around them,” Kochanowicz said.

This is called acoustic masking, explained William Halliday, the underwater ship noise expert involved in the study.

He used narwhal trying to communicate with each other as an example. “The closer the ship is to that marine mammal, the more masking occurs, the harder it is for them to hear each other.”

This could make them more vulnerable to prey, or make it harder for animals to communicate with their young.

Halliday said other research done in the 1980s shows narwhal and belugas can hear an icebreaker up to 50 kilometres away, but animals react differently depending on the circumstances.

Belugas tend to run away from the noise, while narwhals seem to go quiet and stay still, as if a predator is nearby, Halliday said.

Bowhead whales, on the other hand, seem to ignore the noise when they’re too busy foraging for food.

Another concern is that marine mammals may end up suffering hearing damage — although it is very unlikely, since many ships would have to pass over the animals in a short period of time without the mammals moving away from them, Halliday explained.

“A single ship passing by probably isn’t going to cause hearing damage,” he said. “But if there are lots of ships passing by repeatedly, that could,” he said.

Most research on hearing loss in marine mammals has been done on whales in captivity since it’s hard to test a whale’s hearing in the wild.

Icebreakers are the loudest ships in the world, Halliday said, followed by merchant vessels like the ones hauling iron ore from the Baffinland mine — which ships out multiple times daily.

To imagine what the noise sounds like, Halliday said you can compare a ship coming towards an animal passing overhead to being at a rock concert.

“If you’ve ever been to a rock concert and your ears are ringing for the next day after going, that could be comparable to a single ship passing by.”

It’s not quite clear what impact ship noise will have on marine mammals in the long term since most studies look at the short-term effects, Halliday explained.

One of the worries is that over time, marine mammals won’t return to their regular spots if they’re continually scared away by ships. On the other hand, they might get used to the noise, he said.

Even if they get used to the noise, there could be possible health impacts caused by increased stress, such as lower reproduction rates.

Research shows increased shipping noise is already stressing out narwhal in Eclipse Sound, where the largest population of narwhals lives near the Mary River mine.

One way to reduce noise is for ships to slow down, Halliday said. Otherwise, there is ongoing research into quieter boat designs, and another solution may be designating certain quiet areas where ships can’t go.

Jackie Dawson, one of the study’s co-authors, said she often heard concerns about ship noise from Inuit while consulting with communities for research on shipping routes in the Arctic.

The number of ships passing through Canada’s Arctic has nearly tripled since the 1990s, according to Dawson’s report.

This is partly because global warming and melting sea ice are resulting in more open waters and longer shipping seasons, she said.

A report by the Arctic Council’s working group on marine environment protection showed a 25 per cent increase in ship visits across the Arctic between 2013 and 2019.

Correction: This article has been altered from a previous version to correct the name of the journal in which the research was published and to clarify some of the aspects of the research.

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(14) Comments:

  1. Posted by It’s disappointing on

    The pond inlet hto and Inuit have said this at nirb consultations for years. Baffinland gets the nirb and federal government rubber stamps.

    A grad student publishes her thesis, so now it’s taken seriously?

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      • Posted by Truestory on

        I hope it doesn’t happen. But, we’re dealing with people who doesn’t want Nunavut to go forward. Just same old B.S..

    • Posted by Qavvigarjuk on

      yes, Inuit have been saying that for years and never taken seriously!!!! They have the knowledge of the land and sea for thousands of years; they notice a difference when animals start behaving differently!!! when will scientist, NIRB etc. take Inuit seriously

      • Posted by Let’s B Real OK on

        Obviously scientists do take Inuit seriously, or this paper and this article would not have gone through so many pains to point out how much they did so.

        On the other hand, not everything Inuit think is true about the world, or that can be properly called Inuit knowledge, is necessarily true.

        For example, can you tell me what Inuit knowledge says about origins of the northern lights?

  2. Posted by Withheld till mext meeting on

    Save a copy of this article for when the next seismic complacancy making team comes to town.

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  3. Posted by S on

    I’ll guess there are 30 or 40 thousand cargo ships and barges at sea and on large lakes at any one time. Continuously, on the water. Motorized ships have been sailing for a century.

    Additionally there must be a few 100 thousand small motor boats at sea or in freshwater. Factories roaring for decades. Bombs and construction detonations non-stop.

    Otters, whales, seals, manatees do their thing. Along comes a funded general Biology major, who just happens to be an expert on human-made-climate also, to pronounce that some waters are too noisy. Funded Baizuos are as bad as their weekend brethren

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    • Posted by Raised in Florida on

      you forgot to mention all the manatees with propeller scars on their backs that resulted in slow-go zones, and all the marine mammals with no fat and not eating, if not noise then the dispersants get to them first. But who gets to go out for weeks at a time to measure the chemicals and frequencies, to prove to companies that the damage is true and the cause just?

      You should appreciate people that school ocean sciences to put facts to paper and back up what Inuit have been saying. Any little bit helps any study or petition helps. Especially with big brother and oil companies on our backs all the time.

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  4. Posted by lol on

    funny how people from every Nunavut community been crying for ports for decades but don’t want the mine.

    bring me my southern stuff but don’t take anything away ever.

  5. Posted by Ditto on

    Just because the article says “could” doesn’t mean “it does” . Research is just that, research. You can stage the research to get the result you want.

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    • Posted by Nice catch on

      Exactly, this kind of couched language really says “we are not sure but we think so”. It’s good at least that scientists are honest enough to use these terms. It’s also good to take note of them and understand what they are saying and what they aren’t.

  6. Posted by iWonder on

    To make the observation that ship noise is probably affecting marine life doesn’t seem that controversial or difficult a thing to come up with. In scientific terms an observation like this would be called a hypothesis–a testable question. This explains why studies like this are conducted, to confirm or refute a hypothesis.

    To suggest that Inuit know this was a problem before this was tested is, in my opinion, inaccurate. It is of course possible to be right about a hypothesis (or an intuition or guess) without knowing you are right. The threshold here for what counts as ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ is fairly high, as it should be.

    One question I have for proponents of what is called ‘Inuit knowledge’ is what are the methods and thresholds by which observations are deemed to be true, or to put it differently, what counts as ‘knowledge’ and what does not count as ‘knowledge’ from within this framework?

    • Posted by Long time here on

      Good luck getting a good answer. Here is what I think about it. Most people use the words traditional knowledge to mean whatever they want it to mean. That doesn’t mean that is all it is but it is used like that. Sad but true.

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