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A Review of the Effects of Seismic Surveys on Marine Mammals

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This review highlights significant gaps in our knowledge of the effects of seismic air gun noise on marine mammals. Although the characteristics of the seismic signal at different ranges and depths and at higher frequencies are poorly understood, and there are often insufficient data to identify the appropriate acoustic propagation models to apply in particular conditions, these uncertainties are modest compared with those associated with biological factors. Potential biological effects of air gun noise include physical/physiological effects, behavioral disruption, and indirect effects associated with altered prey availability. Physical/physiological effects could include hearing threshold shifts and auditory damage as well as non-auditory disruption, and can be directly caused by sound exposure or the result of behavioral changes in response to sounds, e.g. recent observations suggesting that exposure to loud noise may result in decompression sickness. Direct information on the extent to which seismic pulses could damage hearing are difficult to obtain and as a consequence the impacts on hearing remain poorly known. Behavioral data have been collected for a few species in a limited range of conditions. Responses, including startle and fright, avoidance, and changes in behavior and vocalization patterns, have been observed in baleen whales, odontocetes, and pinnipeds and in some case these have occurred at ranges of tens or hundreds of kilometers. However, behavioral observations are typically variable, some findings are contradictory, and the biological significance of these effects has not been measured. Where feeding, orientation, hazard avoidance, migration or social behavior are altered, it is possible that populations could be adversely affected. There may also be serious long-term consequences due to chronic exposure, and sound could affect marine mammals indirectly by changing the accessibility of their prey species.

A precautionary approach to management and regulation must be recommended. While such large degrees of uncertainty remain, this may result in restrictions to operational practices but these could be relaxed if key uncertainties are clarified by appropriate research.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2003

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  • The Marine Technology Society Journal is the flagship publication of the Marine Technology Society. It publishes the highest caliber, peer-reviewed papers on subjects of interest to the society: marine technology, ocean science, marine policy and education. The Journal is dedicated to publishing timely special issues on emerging ocean community concerns while also showcasing general interest and student-authored works.
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