Noise impacts on ringed seals

Regions: Inuvialuit Settlement Region

Tags: biology, ambient noise, ringed seal, vessel traffic, spatial ecology

Principal Investigator: Insley, Stephen J (20)
Licence Number: 17180
Organization: Wildlife Conservation Society Canada
Licensed Year(s): 2023 2022
Issued: Jan 16, 2023
Project Team: William Halliday, Maya Chartier, Deborah Sharpe, Mariana Barbosa, Annika Heimrich

Objective(s): To examine the impacts of underwater noise from vessel traffic on ringed seals and to examine the spatial ecology of ringed seals in the western Canadian Arctic and estimate their exposure to underwater noise from vessel traffic.

Project Description: This licence has been issued for the scientific research application No.5426.

This project has two main objectives: 1) Examine the impacts of underwater noise from vessel traffic on ringed seals; and 2) Examine the spatial ecology of ringed seals in the western Canadian Arctic and estimate their exposure to underwater noise from vessel traffic. Within these objectives, the research team will be working closely with Inuvialuit partners to develop the specific project objectives and priorities, as well as the methodologies and techniques that we will use and the specific locations where the work will take place. This includes dedicated meetings before any fieldwork occurs to plan the specifics of the project. Anticipated results: 1) A better understanding of how ringed seals react to underwater noise from vessels; and 2) Delineate the spatial ecology of ringed seals in the western Canadian Arctic based on telemetry and passive acoustics, and estimate the exposure of ringed seals to underwater noise from vessels.

Before any fieldwork, the research team will consult with Inuvialuit partners to plan the methodology and site selection for the fieldwork. Following yearly fieldwork, the team will update all Inuvialuit partners, evaluate project performance, and determine if adjustments are required for the following year.

Each spring while the sea ice is solid, the research team will find active ringed seal breathing holes near Ulukhaktok. The ream will record the vocalizations made by ringed seal using a cabled acoustic recorder. Following one hour of recording with undisturbed conditions, the team will play sounds made by vessels (test stimuli) and natural sounds such as ice breaking (control stimuli) with an underwater speaker while simultaneously recording sounds made by the seal. The team will continue recording for another hour to document seal vocalizations following the disturbance. The team will repeat this process with at least 10 ringed seals each year, for a minimum final sample size of 40 seals. The team will conduct detailed bioacoustic analyses of the acoustic data to measure the vocalization characteristics of ringed seals before, during, and after the vessel noise playback and in comparison to the playback of natural sounds. The team will use high quality ringed seal vocalizations from the recordings to update an automated detector and classifier for ringed seal vocalizations. The team will use this detector to process years of archived passive acoustic data collected throughout the western Canadian Arctic, examine the spatial ecology of ringed seals in this region, and estimate their exposure to vessel noise recorded in the same acoustic data.

Each summer, the research team will capture live ringed seals near Ulukhaktok following standard operating procedures developed by marine mammal biologists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The team will capture seals using a large monofilament net placed in the water, with one end tied to shore or to a small vessel and the other anchored in deeper water. Once a seal is caught, the net will be brought to shore or onboard the vessel and the seal will be secured and untangled. Two tags will be fixed with epoxy to the upper dorsal surface of the seal: one satellite telemetry tag, which will remain attached for many months and detach when the seal moults; and one acoustic/movement tag, which will detach from the seal after a few hours. The satellite tag collects data on each seal’s position and dive behaviour and transmits data via satellite. The acoustic tag collects audio and detailed movement data, is programmed to pop off at a set point in time, and must be recovered to access the data. The acoustic tag also has both radio and GPS tracking, allowing the seal to be followed. The team will release seals once the tags are attached, and track each seal’s position from small boats using signals transmitted from the tag. After the seal is at least one-hour post-release and has returned to normal behaviour, the team will broadcast vessel noise using an underwater speaker. The acoustic tag will measure detailed movement of the seal and the acoustic environment around the seal, including the playback stimuli. Following the playback experiment, the team will stop following the seal closely, but will wait to recover the tag once it falls off. The team will later analyze the tag data to assess the impact of the playback experiment on seal movement behaviour. The team aim to tag a minimum of 5 ringed seals every year, for a minimum final sample size of 20 seals. The team will analyze the satellite telemetry data to assess the spatial ecology of ringed seals and assess how often ringed seals are exposed to vessels tracked through the automatic identification system. The team will analyze the satellite telemetry data to assess whether seals show signs of behavioural disturbance when exposed to a vessel.

Communications will occur at the onset of the project with local Hunters and Trappers Committee (HTC). During the field season, discussions are expected to occur in the communities, such as on the street, in the store and over tea/coffee. The research team place a high value on these interactions and try to have as many as possible. Following each field season, formal update presentations will be made at the Inuvialuit Game Council (IGC) meetings, usually one in September to report on the current season and one in March to communicate the upcoming season's plans. Annual updates will also be given to the Fisheries Joint Management Committee (FJMC) annual meeting in January of each year. In addition, updates and discussions will be carried out on an annual basis at any other gatherings relevant to Inuvialuit including the Beaufort Sea Partnership (BSP) and the Arctic Net annual meetings. Other communications involving discussions and presentations that the team welcome include working group meetings and Regional Coordination Committee (RCC) meetings. Finally, the team also produce plain language summaries of any report or publication that results from the research and try best to distribute these as widely as possible in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) along with the reports and publications.

The fieldwork for this study will be conducted from May 1, 2023 to September 30, 2023.