May 23, 2019
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Science & Technology

Noise pollution threatens Chile's whales

By Patricia Lopez Rossell

Santiago, May 6 (efe-epa).- The noise pollution created by ship and boat motors is literally deafening for whales along the coast of Chile, where half the world's sightings of the cetaceans take place - it damages their hearing, which in turn leads to communication problems in the pod and even causes them to run aground on beaches.

"The ocean is an acoustic medium. Sound travels much faster in the water than through the air, and all marine fauna have evolved to communicate in a specific way," British oceanographer Susannah Buchan, who has implemented robot submarines to detect whales so as to protect them, told EFE.

Buchan took her doctorate at the University of Concepcion, 515 kilometers (320 miles) south of Santiago, where she is making a pioneering study in Latin America to locate in real time the cetaceans in Chilean waters, in order to warn nearby boats to lower the speed of their motors.

Another of the project's purposes is to avoid the collision of whales with vessels, which causes so many fatalities among these giant sea mammals that it is second only to their being unintentionally caught in commercial fishing nets.

"Noise stresses out the whales, reduces their distance of communication and can even cause temporary or permanent hearing loss. When blasted with really loud sounds, such as those from navy ships, they can run aground on the coast," Buchan said.

The oceanographer said that high sound volumes are being "injected" into the marine environment "without any awareness" of the impact they have on the creatures that depend on sound waves to communicate.

For that reason, Buchan imported from the United States two robot submarines to submerge in waters of the Pacific Ocean, and which surface every two hours to send the sounds recorded with two hydrophones - underwater microphones - that are currently being tested in the Gulf of Corcovado.

The researcher receives the data on her computer and in that way can know, almost in real time, where the cetaceans are swimming, of what species they are, and report the information to the authorities.

"Up to now we did something cheaper and simpler, which was to put a hydrophone at a place on the sea bottom, collect the data and make a study based on the conclusions two years later. The acoustic monitoring in real time is much stronger because it allows you to take instant decisions," Buchan said.

The expert brought to Chile this technology that had already been used in ports like Boston in the United States.

"For the moment we've seen that it works here. The next step is to distribute the information to users of the service on ships at sea, as is done in Boston, where whale conservation is a problem," Buchan said.

"Every time they detect them, they send an e-mail or text message so the boats lower their speed, maritime construction projects are interrupted and even military exercises are stopped," the researcher said.

Whales are the sea creatures that suffer most from noise pollution, but it has been shown that other mammals like dolphins and even fish and crustaceans are also affected.

In addition, according to Yacqueline Montecinos, head of marine biodiversity for WWF Chile, cetaceans "play a very important role in the ecosystem."

"Whales are mammals with bioindicators that show changes in the environment, They also fertilize the oceans and mitigate climate change. We can't afford to lose these populations for environmental reasons," Montecinos said.

The WWF representative said that now they need to "join forces" with users of the service at sea and governments to make all responsible for maintaining these robots so they can operate along the entire Chilean coastline.

This system, which should be funded in part by the government, also requires "time for implementation" to raise awareness of those who work at sea about the importance of being guided by the messages they receive.

"It's a whole process and we hope that in 10 years or so, Chile will be the first country in Latin America to have a system that detects whales and makes all the vessels in the nation's maritime space reduce their speed in the presence of whales," Montecinos said.

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