Ringed seal spotted on ice while WCS Canada Arctic Team deployed acoustic recorders, underwater cameras, and trail cameras to study how shipping noise impacts marine mammals in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada. , William Halliday
Ringed seal spotted on ice while WCS Canada Arctic Team deployed acoustic recorders, underwater cameras, and trail cameras to study how shipping noise impacts marine mammals in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada.  © William Halliday

Whales and seals

A warmer, noisier Arctic is creating new challenges for marine mammals

The Arctic Ocean, with its thick blanket of ice and months of darkness, has long been one the planet’s quietest places. But climate change is bringing rapid changes – faster here than almost anywhere else on Earth. Ice-free periods are growing longer and longer and the ice itself is growing thinner. These conditions raise many concerns for Arctic mammals such as whales and seals.

Threats

A noisier Arctic

With less ice, wave and wind noise is increased. This could make survival more difficult as sound used for group communication, navigation or finding food are lost within higher ambient noise levels.

But the biggest change is likely to be a sharp increase in ship traffic through the Arctic as freight carriers look for a shorter route between Asia and Europe, ships service new mines on the Arctic coast, and tourism operators exploit an interesting new – and newly accessible – destination.

Increased shipping

Ships also pollution threats (from leaks or accidents), and the possibility of collisions with slow-moving whales. These sorts of impacts are already being seen with right whales in the Atlantic and orcas in the Pacific. To avoid a replication of these problems in the Arctic, Canada needs to be better prepared for a major increase in shipping through what are still remote and often ice-filled waters that also teem with marine life.

Our solutions

Studying the impacts of noise

WCS Canada’s Arctic research team has been carefully studying the potential impacts of ship noise on arctic marine mammals in the Beaufort Sea. Using underwater sound recording equipment, we have been both quantifying the amount of noise generated by passing vessels and looking at the potential impact of this new noise source on whales and seals.

Sound travels further underwater than in air, and consequently we have found that ship noise can be detected as much as 100 km away. Our studies indicate that even when ships are as much as 50 km away, their noise can have a significant “masking” effect on sound use by whales.

We are also working with our international colleagues to address noise increases in the Arctic. We recently completed a global assessment of noise in the Arctic marine environment for the Arctic Council’s PAME (Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment) working group. This is being used to find international solutions to address increasing noise in the Arctic.

Advocating for safer shipping

We have published a number of papers on the potential impacts of noise on Arctic marine mammals and how these impacts could be mitigated. We are strongly encouraging the federal government to be proactive in improving protections for marine mammals by shifting shipping routes away from areas heavily used by whales, imposing strict speed limits in areas with high whale concentrations, and improving tracking of vessel traffic in the Beaufort Sea.

We have used this research to point to proactive steps that can be taken to protect whales and other marine mammals before ship traffic increases, including slowing ship speeds, changing shipping routes to avoid high whale concentration areas, and requiring human spotters when passing through whale-rich areas.

Studying seal diets and health

Our team has also been working with local Inuit communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region communities to study seal diets and health, including exposure to contaminants. We have helped to establish a Community-Based Monitoring program that can help to inform local wildlife management and community decision making.

Projects

Assessing seal diet and health

Assessing seal diet and health

We are working with Inuit in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region to assess seal diets and contaminants as indicators of a changing Arctic ecosystem.

Documenting the impacts of underwater noise

Documenting the impacts of underwater noise

Addressing impacts from shipping and climate change in the western Arctic

Resources


Stories and op-eds

What the State of Whales tells us about conservation in Canada
2024-04-04

What the State of Whales tells us about conservation in Canada

Over half of Canada’s 40 whale species remain at some level of extinction risk.
Daniel Kraus, William Halliday, Stephen Insley
Scouting for Sound in the Arctic Depths
2023-11-15

Scouting for Sound in the Arctic Depths

Our Western Arctic team is tracking the performance of a new listening device – a “glider” that can roam beneath the water’s surface picking up sounds and other ocean state information.
William Halliday
Worth the wait: Encountering bowhead whales in Canada’s Arctic
2023-03-20

Worth the wait: Encountering bowhead whales in Canada’s Arctic

We arrived in Igloolik hoping to find community members with boats to hire to take us out to find bowhead whales.

Media coverage

'Like being at a loud rock concert': study looks at how ship noise affects Arctic marine mammals

"Whales are swimming faster when ships are close by ... and we're finding changes in the sound that they're making in their vocalizations," said William Halliday, the lead researcher for the study.
2023-12-26 | CBC

Trois exploratrices, une passion

Maya Chartier travaille comme technicienne de la faune dans l’Arctique pour la Wildlife Conservation Society du Canada. Elle recueille, entre autres, des informations sur les phoques sur les rives de la mer de Beaufort.
2023-12-23 | Radio-Canada

William Halliday on increased shipping in the Beaufort Sea

2023-12-19 | CBC - The Trailbreaker with Hilary Bird

Our team

Stephen Insley

Stephen Insley

 Director of Arctic Conservation

William Halliday

William Halliday

Conservation Scientist/Arctic Acoustics Program Lead

Maya Chartier

Maya Chartier

 Wildlife Technician