The lives of marine mammals are coming under increasing challenges with a changing climate and industrial activity in the Arctic, including potential for expanding shipping and oil exploration activities. The Bering Strait is one of the regions where shipping activity is expected to increase the most. This passage is also used by a vast number of several marine mammal species that make seasonal migrations in and out of the Arctic. This overlap between marine mammals and increasing ship activity has the potential to impact the lives of these animals by increasing the risk of collision and increasing underwater noise levels.
The Northern Bering Sea waters are typically covered with ice during the winter, and are prone to extreme weather conditions. This makes monitoring for the presence of marine mammals and assessing impacts of climate change and industrial activities quite challenging. Since the summer of 2013 when our team worked with a local hunter from Savoonga to deploy our first sound recording instruments off St. Lawrence Island, we have been deploying sound recording instruments around the entire Island to detect the vocalizations of marine mammals and noise levels in the Northern Bering Sea and leading into the Bering Strait. This information will constitute an important baseline from which to assess changes in ambient noise and patterns of marine mammal presence, and will allow us to anticipate future impacts associated with increasing shipping.
During June 2015 our team, led by Dr. Ricardo Antunes, went on the next expedition to the waters of the Bering Strait. The goal was to recover two recorders deployed in October 2014 and deploy five others for monitoring marine mammals and anthropogenic noise throughout the summer. Instrument recoveries are always exciting as our team tries to find them after months underwater, wondering if they had been dragged along the bottom by drifting ice, if their waterproof housings have leaked or if the batteries kept working in cold Arctic waters. Luckily our team managed to find both recorders and was exhilarated to discover that they had worked perfectly, recording throughout the whole period. This means that they probably recorded vocalizations made by bowhead whales during both their Southward and Northward migration, as they pass off St. Lawrence. In the coming months, we will be analyzing these recordings for the presence of vocalizations of bowhead whales, walrus, bearded seals and other marine mammals, as well as measuring the noise levels generated by vessels steaming through the Bering Strait.
Deployment of additional instruments was also quite successful, helped by extremely good weather and support from captain Adem Boeckman and the remainder of the Anchor Point’s crew. We have been using a larger vessel recently due to the dangers of working offshore with heavy anchors for our equipment. The analysis of the winter recordings has started in the lab and when finished will provide insight into the migration patterns of marine mammals and into the assessment of baseline noise levels in the area—this will help us as noise levels potentially increase so we can determine if they are having an impact on these amazing animals and this important area.