We need to learn a lot more about what’s stressing whales, study emphasizes

Human-produced noise in the ocean is likely harming marine mammals in numerous unknown ways, according to a comprehensive new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. That’s because there are insufficient data to determine how the ill effects of noise created by ships, sonar signals, and other activities interact with other threats, including pollution, climate change, and the loss of prey due to fishing. The report, which was sponsored by several government agencies and released on 7 October, provides a new framework for researchers to begin exploring these cumulative impacts.

“There’s a growing recognition that interactions between stressors on marine mammals can’t right now be accurately assessed,“ said Peter Tyack, a marine mammal biologist at the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom, in a webinar on the report. Tyack also chaired the committee that prepared the study, "Approaches to Understanding the Cumulative Effects of Stressors on Marine Mammals.”

Killer whales, for instance, are known to swim away from areas where they have encountered sonar signals of about 142 decibels, a sound level lower than currently allowed by the U.S. Navy for its ships, Tyack said, referring to a 2014 study in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America that determined the mammals’ likely response. But scientists don’t yet know how other marine mammals might respond. They also don’t know whether or how other factors, such as encountering an oil spill or colliding with a ship, would—or would not—compound the cetaceans’ response to these sounds; or how or whether such combined stressors matter to the animals’ long-term health and overall population.

Perhaps most surprising, Tyack said, scientists’ knowledge about the population size of most marine mammals “is very poor, and too weak to detect declines in time for effective action.”