Oil and Gas exploration implicated in dolphin strandings

2012 Gulf Dolphin Samples - NMFS Photo

Over 675 dolphins have been found dead along the Florida to Texas Gulf Coast since February 2010. Initially people suspected that the BP oil spill and dispersant use might be to blame. A report from NOAA corroborates this with a finding that some 32 live dolphins show signs of chemical stress with liver and lung damage, and other metabolic compromises.

But reports from other research do not show chemical damage, and some focus has shifted over to acoustical exploration for oil and gas. The concern for acoustical trauma has prompted the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to restrict seismic exploration off Louisiana until May, when the dolphin calving season ends.

2012 Peru Dolphin Strandings

Heretofore there have been only loose correlations between seismic exploration and marine mammal strandings, but the tragic strandings of 2000-3000 dolphins this year in Peru has implicated acoustical surveys for oil and gas off Peru’s coast.

It could be that new technologies are being used for the surveys, or that the cumulative stresses of chemical pollution, depleted food sources, and acoustical trauma are causing a rise in strandings world-wide.

Whatever the cause(s), we can be sure that our growing thirst for fossil fuel plays some role in these tragedies.

Noise impacts on fish and invertebrates workshop

I spent last week in San Diego attending a workshop sponsored by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on the impacts of human generated noise on marine fish and invertebrates. Having watched the field of ocean noise impacts roll slowly forward in fits and starts for 20 years, this workshop is really a breath of fresh air (or a gulp of fresh water).

Most of what has driven the ‘noise impacts’ discussion over the years has been concern for marine mammals – both from regulations such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, and from the concerns of the public for the critters that are called “marine charismatic megafauna” in the conservation business.

Of course the ocean is much more than a menagerie of iconic animals; it also includes a vast portion of the biota – from the simplest bacteria and archea to the most complex communities of fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals – upon which all life on earth depends.

We have afforded a modicum of protection for some members of this menagerie with regulations because they inspire us or feed us. But our regulatory frameworks do not protect all of the animals which are impacted by noise and that make up the web of ocean life.

This is why the BOEM workshop was so exceptional. It brought together many of the world’s experts on marine bioacoustics to spend a few days digging down into our concerns and understandings about the impacts of noise on the less charismatic, but nonetheless equally important members of the animal kingdom found in the sea.

Giant squid beached coincident to seismic surveys

Giant squid beached coincident to seismic surveys

BOEM’s objective falls under the recent “ecosystem based management practices” advanced by NOAA Director Jane Lubchenko “to make non-arbitrary management decisions that are scientifically informed.” Our objective as attendees was to form a basis of understanding and inquiry that informs BOEM about impacts of noise on the diverse species of marine fish and invertebrates.

While this meeting did not solve all of the ocean’s acoustic mysteries, it provided a substantial opening to bring biologists, acousticians, physicists, and engineers together to work toward common strategies on understanding and decreasing our acoustical impacts on marine life.

After a decade of inaction on federal ocean policy, this is really something to celebrate.

Tracking walrus’ movement using only one ear

A recent paper was published by marine research firm JASCO on localizing walruses using a single hydrophone. The technique they have refined is detailed in the article and involves assessing “multipath signals” – echoes from the sea surface and seafloor – along with the direct signal to track the movements of walruses in the Arctic. This is remarkable because locating a sound source usually involves two or more receivers.

For example, all terrestrial vertebrates have two ears which allow us to locate sound sources. We do this using a number of different cues. One of the obvious cues is amplitude: if the sound is louder in one ear over the other we assume that the sound source is closer to the louder ear. Another more subtle cue is ‘time of arrival’ which allows us to locate a sound source by the difference between the times it takes for the sound to arrive at one ear and the other.

These two cues serve to give us a general bead on the horizontal source of a sound – whether it is to the left or right, in front of us or somewhere in between. This method is adequate for birds, frogs, and lizards in the context of their survival needs.

But we mammals have more complex localizing needs from sound so we have developed outer ears that provide us with more subtle cues – allowing us to determine things such as how close or far, and the height or azimuth of a sound.

Mammals with movable ears such as cats and horses can use their outer ears like periscopes to hone in on a source of sound. Primates such as us humans have fixed ears, so we derive location cues from secondary reflections off the pinnae of our ear.

It happens that all the whorls on our outer ears collect and reflect sound into our ear canal with a tiny time delay after the primary sound hits our ear drums. This is a bit like the “multipath” cues that JASCO teased out in their work (but with much less math).

These three cues – amplitude, time of arrival, and delay of the secondary reflection allows us to pinpoint the source of a sound with uncanny accuracy.

Of course marine mammals (with the exception of sea lions, polar bears, and otters) do not have outer ears. We know that they have equal, or even more complex localizing needs from sound, especially the Arctic animals that spend a good amount of time in the deep and dark waters of the Arctic winter.

It has been less than 100 years that humans have started to use sonar in marine environments. The folks at JASCO are rolling back sonar frontiers, showing us that complex data can be derived from single receivers.

Marine mammals such as whales and seals have been adapting to their acoustic environment for 20-30 million years. It stands to reason that these animals have evolved some pretty complex adaptations to sound perception.

Hopefully we can come to understand and learn from some of these adaptations before we cloud out their arctic environment with sounds to which they have not adapted.

Jasco graph describing walrus localization

Marine Bio-acoustics lecture at Hopkins Marine Station, Monterey

Two OCR events for tomorrow – Thursday February 23:

Radio interview:

For those in the SF Bay Area I will be presenting a few words on our Arctic campaign on Pacifica’s “Visionary Activists Show” with Caroline Casey

Where: 94.1 or http://www.kpfa.org/programs/all

When: 2:00 pm



For those of you in the Monterrey Bay area I will be giving a presentation on marine mammal acoustic adaptations sponsored by the Monterey chapter of the American Cetacean Society. Slides, sounds, and Q&A – preceded by a sound environment piece assembled by ACS Chapter director Bob Mannix .

Hopkins Marine Station
120 Oceanview Blvd.,
Pacific Grove, CA 93950
Adjacent to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium

Thursday February 23,
7:00 pm for refreshments,7:30 pm for the lecture

The event is open to the public at no charge.
For more information visit:

I hope to see you there!



Here are the recordings of the radio interviews with Caroline Casey on “Visionary Activist”, KPFA


Marine Scientists express themselves through CNN

An article appeared today in “CNN Opinion” by Chris Clark and Brandon Southall focused on the impacts of noise on marine life. It is an informative read and also highlights two important trends in the field.

First, it points to a trend in impact awareness and research from incident-specific catastrophic impacts (such as sonar induced mass strandings) toward chronic compromise of habitat due to “sub-lethal” noise sources such as shipping noise and seismic airgun surveys. This keys into the more holistic “Ecosystem Based Management” concept introduced into NOAA’s regulatory framework by NOAA director Jane Lubchenko when she took the reins in 2009.

The second important trend is that noted scientists are stepping forward with opinions and recommendations – something that until recently was not in most scientists repertoire. This trend is becoming exceedingly critical given the more rapacious and troubling trend of policy makers and industry moguls of just making up convenient lies without regard for scientific fact – ignoring the hard, methodical work that scientists do to assure the integrity of their findings.

Drs. Clark and Southall are at the vanguard of this trend which will hopefully encourage scientists in all fields to reach out to the public with their findings. Given the urgent state of our global habitat – frayed by the frenzied drive of “The Economy,” scientific voices are profoundly needed to inform and influence public opinion and policies.

Thanks guys!

BBC Focus on Sounds of the Sea

Yesterday BBC News put out a feature article on ocean acoustics. I suspect that this is really making the rounds because many folks have brought it to our attention. For good reason too, as it includes some great embedded sounds, references to other useful resources, and a couple of conversations with folks in the field, such as Chris Clark with Cornell Ornithology Lab, and Michel Andre whose “Listening to Deep Ocean” we covered in a January 2011 Newsletter.

It is encouraging that ocean bioacoustics is increasingly becoming “main-stream,” particularly in light of the fact that the reach of human noise is ever saturating into further reaches of the sea – requiring all of us to be better informed about how marine animals use their acoustic habitat, and how human noise is transforming it.

What the Ocean Provides

In the current issue of Orion Magazine there is an article about animal intelligence and the octopus that is worth a read. It is pretty much out in the field of common knowledge that these animals are remarkably intelligent. Most folks have heard one tale or another about an octopus sneaking out of their aquarium at night to pull off some mischief.

The article excavates a bit deeper into the super-perceptions of these denizens; how they can probably “taste emotions” through chemo-sensor skin.  Their skin also has photo-receptors allowing the skin to “see,” and thus brilliantly adapt their coloration and even texture as a form of expression or method of camouflage – which they can do with flair and “personality.”

Bishes Rochon by Norman Wu

Bishes Rochon by Norman Wu

The Octopi are mollusks, sharing the phylum with snails and slugs – which seems a bit counter-intuitive. This is reconciled somewhat by their separate classification as “cephalopods” or “head foots” (along with the cuttlefish and squids) whereas the snails and slugs are “gastropods” or “stomach foots.”

What may account for their adaptive intelligence is that their nervous systems are a balance between a central nervous system (that vertebrates like us have) and a distributed nervous system (like insects have). Both systems have advantages. By centralizing our processing, our senses report back to our brain – which learns a repertoire of responses and can fine-tune and adapt over time in ways consistent to our learning.

Camoflaged Octopus by Colin Zylka - Marine Photobank

Camoflaged Octopus by Colin Zylka - Marine Photobank

Distributed nervous systems on the other hand have ganglia and neurons where they are needed, so the grasshopper’s brain doesn’t need to decide to jump, the legs just jump when some threshold is triggered. One advantage of this is in speed or impulse response; neural communications are not bogged down by pondering.

By having a combination of central and distributed neurological functions the octopus can learn, and adapt fast. So when you see these animals work on a problem it appears as if their arms are doing the thinking.

With super-sensing skin, a poisonous bite, rapidly adaptive coloration and texture, distinct individual personalities, and an uncommon ability to sort things out, what do these animals hear?

It turns out that they hear nothing – or at least they don’t let on to hearing anything. This is a bit uncanny given how useful sound perception would be to an animal with the octopus’ intelligence, adaptability, and sensory compliment. But they seem to be deaf as a stone.

The Ocean provides the octopus for us to get to know, but she also provides mysteries for us to ponder. What a gift.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Arctic is on Everybody’s Sonar Lately

Last week we attended an Acoustic Society conference in San Diego. This time I didn’t deliver a paper so it was mostly a reconnaissance trip – both to catch up with colleagues and to introduce Gwynn, our Digital Assets Manager to the field.

It is not a surprise that many of the bioacoustic papers that were presented involved the Arctic – both in terms of the acoustic ecology and habitat assessment, and in learning more about the animals in the area.

Map of polar ice melt back

Map of polar ice melt

As the “ground zero” for global warming, the Arctic is changing extremely fast. Due to accelerated melt-back of the ice-cap entire expanses of the sea are being exposed to daylight which may not have seen the sun since the late Miocene period (over five million years ago). We all know that this is distressing the Polar Bears, but it is also threatening the Ribbon, Ringed, and Bearded seals, which live exclusively on sea ice.

Sound recordings are being made documenting animal vocalizations, baseline ambient noise, and the rise in human-generated noise. New sounds are being discovered, and new impacts are being noticed.

And this is none too soon.

This last summer Shell Oil was cleared to drill three exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea, and just last Thursday the Department of Interior released a five year offshore drilling plan that includes opening up more leases in the Arctic.

Additionally, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will soon be releasing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for their five year Arctic plan for public comments. Given that the petroleum industry has been pushing to get their pipes in the Arctic waters we expect that there will be much to comment on.

Ribbon Seal: Exploratorium

Ribbon Seal: Photo by Exploratorium

We have been anticipating this and spent a good amount of time this last year with Dave Aplin of WWF, Michael Jasny of NRDC, and the good folks at Bean Creativedeveloping a highly featured and interactive website focused on the impacts of offshore oil industry noise on Arctic habitats.

We’ll be launching this in the next few weeks to get everyone up to speed on the issues so that we can all provide focused and informed critiques of the NMFS plan.

Stay tuned; given the voracious appetite of the Oil Men we’ll need “all hands on deck” to protect the Arctic from their oily (and noisy) assaults.

Throwing Precaution to the Wind – and the Waves

Wave Energy by Ocean PowerLtd

Wave Energy - Courtesy of Ocean Power Ltd.

A recent IBM press release on an ocean noise monitoring project caught the attention of Forbes and other press this week because of a bit of an ironic twist: Our lack of precaution in developing earlier energy technologies – fossil fuel and nuclear, has sensitized us to potential problems in advancing new sustainable technologies like wind and wave energy.

It is never too late to adopt precaution. The concerns are quite real that noise generated by the installation and operation of thousands of wind turbines or wave and tidal harvesting systems across large areas of the ocean will have habitat impacts. Any energy development deployed in these large scales will. It remains to be heard what the impacts are and if there will be easy mitigation strategies should we find the artifacts of these technologies agonistic to marine life.

Video Link: Pelagis Wind Farm

Though what I find doubly ironic is that we know the earlier energy technologies are killing us – by way of intractable and persistent pollution, or by way of climate change; nonetheless we are casting all precaution to the wind by opening up new and reckless sources of fossil fuel in the Arctic, the Marcellus Shale, and the Canadian Tar Sands (for example). Meanwhile we are cautiously moving ahead on technologies made vital by our very lack of precaution in earlier energy technologies.


Tar Sands

I‘m not suggesting that we shouldn’t throw caution to the wind; but while were at it we should throw caution to oil and gas as well.

The Acoustic Ecology of Geophysical Surveys

OCR advisory board member and acoustic ecologist Jim Cummings sent us a New York Times article about life aboard geophysical research vessel (RV) Marcus G. Langseth wherein marine geologist Bernard Coakley writes about the acoustic environment aboard the vessel after winding down a survey operation.

He writes that while a lot of the compressors, airguns, sub-bottom profiling sonar, 12kHz scanning sonar, and the drone of the engines have subsided, the ship-board noise is still too loud to hear the evening movie selection in the crew lounge.

In speaking about the subsiding noise he mentions that the airgun array – which every 13 seconds for a month, and over 5,300 km of track data generated explosions and received seafloor reflections which “shook the aft end of the ship.”

Marcus G. Langseth, Research Vessel

Marcus G. Langseth, Research Vessel

What Coakley doesn’t mention – although it is implied in the setting, is that the noises he is enduring are only the incidental noises of the equipment and operations used for their scientific surveys. The intentional noises used in the surveys are purpose-focused into the ocean, and are by dint of this considerably louder in the water.

Of course the RV Langseth is only a research vessel, towing the relatively small arrays used in an academic context. Surveys conducted for the fossil fuel industry are often considerably louder than academic operations because in principal and in practice they are much better funded and are in turn looking for “deeper pockets” of hydrocarbons.

Industrial Survey Vessel

Industrial Survey Vessel

While the larger ships are probably much less noisy on board due to there being more “elbow room,” given that there are over 40 industrial surveys occurring world-wide at any given time, their contribution to global ocean noise has become a leading feature in the acoustic ecology of the sea.

Global Seismic Survey Operations

Global Seismic Survey Ops.

Yet another great reason to wean ourselves from oil.

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