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January 20, 2012

Report: Sonar fish study may affect whales

The sonar-based technology that has shown promise in improving fish stock assessment — now on a fast track for $1.3 million in state funding that could help solve the mystery of disappearing cod — has also been found to affect the behavior and singing of whales.

Humpback whales "sang less" and possibly swam away from the pings of the Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing technology — or OAWRS — system during a 2006 test to find and quantify schools of pelagic fish in the nearby Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, according to a newly published research article in PLoS One, for Public Library of Science One.

The study also found that the whales seemed to be reacting to the sonar sounds at a far greater distance from the source — roughly 120 miles.

That "anthropogenic" (man-made) sound affects aquatic animals, especially whales which communicate or sing across vast expanses of water is a heavily researched, disputed and litigated problem, according to the study, and U.S. Navy sonar has been linked to strandings, with one case going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, the authors — Denise Risch, Peter J. Corkeron, William T. Ellison and Sofie M. Van Parijs — limited their report to the finding that whales stopped singing when hearing the sonar sounds that somewhat resembled their singing. Risch is at Integrated Statistics, Woods Hole, a private company and government contractor; Ellison is from Marine Acoustics Inc, of Middletown, R.I., and Corkeron and Van Parijs are based at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Science Center at Woods Hole.

"The suitability of Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing technology for long-term monitoring of marine ecosystems should be considered, bearing in mind its possible effects on non-target species, in particular protected species," the authors wrote.

The article was received by PLoS One last July and published last week — days before the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee brought to the floor a $131 million supplemental budget that included $1.3 million for a sonar assessment of groundfish, specifically Gulf of Maine cod.

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