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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 701:159-173 (2022)  -  DOI:

Impact of whale-watching vessels on humpback whale calling behavior on an Icelandic foraging ground during the Covid-19 pandemic

Amelie Laute1,2,*, Thomas J. Grove2,3, Marianne H. Rasmussen4, Adam Smith5, Olli Loisa6, Michelle E. H. Fournet7,8,9

1Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Kiel University, 24118 Kiel, Germany
2Whale Wise, Swansea SA3 1LB, UK
3School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Grant Institute, Edinburgh EH9 3FE, UK
4The University of Iceland’s research center in Húsavík, 640 Húsavík, Iceland
5Marine Biological Research Centre, University of Southern Denmark, 5300 Kerteminde, Denmark
6Engineering and Business, Turku University of Applied Sciences, 20520 Turku, Finland
7K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA
8Sound Science Research Collective, Juneau, AK 99801, USA
9Center for Acoustics Research and Education, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Whale-watching vessels contribute to elevated ambient sound levels in marine habitats. The reduction in maritime tourism activities during the Covid-19 pandemic provided an unprecedented opportunity to study the acoustic response of marine mammals to noise associated with whale-watching activities. In this study, we used acoustic recordings, visual observations, and Automatic Identification System data to determine the changes in humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae calling behavior associated with whale-watching vessels on a foraging ground in Skjálfandi Bay, Iceland. We compared pre-pandemic summer months (2018) with pandemic (2020) conditions to quantify reductions in vessel activity and determine changes in calling behavior. Broadband ambient sound pressure levels were low in both years (median ~90 dBRMS (25-1300 Hz) re 1 µPa). During the Covid-19 pandemic (2020), the number of whale-watching trips was reduced by 68.6%. The number of humpback whale call detections increased nearly 2-fold. Ambient sound pressure levels stayed the same. We found that humpback whales reduce their calling effort in the presence of vessel sound independent of the overall ambient sound. As whale-watching vessel traffic rebounds and continues to grow, demonstrating behavioral responses should inform management plans such as vessel codes of conduct and marine spatial planning.

KEY WORDS: Covid-19 · Humpback whale · Megaptera novaeangliae · Calling behavior · Vessel traffic · Whale-watching · Vessel sound · Anthropogenic noise

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Cite this article as: Laute A, Grove TJ, Rasmussen MH, Smith A, Loisa O, Fournet MEH (2022) Impact of whale-watching vessels on humpback whale calling behavior on an Icelandic foraging ground during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 701:159-173.

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