Beluga Vocalizations Decrease in Response to Vessel Traffic in the Mackenzie River Estuary

Keywords: behavioural disturbance; <i>Delphinapterus leucas</i>; shipping; underwater noise


Vessel traffic negatively affects marine mammals by causing behavioural disturbance, acoustic masking, contamination (i.e., oil spills), and ship strikes. Few studies have examined the effects of vessels on marine mammals in the Arctic, but beluga whales appear to be especially sensitive to vessel traffic. We examine how the vocalizations of belugas are impacted by vessel traffic in the Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area in the Mackenzie River estuary of the western Canadian Arctic. Between one and four acoustic recorders were deployed between June and August each year between 2015 and 2018 near the only shipping channel at this site. We examined beluga vocalizations from acoustic recordings over four summers and assessed how the distance to the nearest vessel passing the acoustic recorder affected the number of vocalizations. Beluga vocalizations within the range of the acoustic recorder decreased significantly when vessels were within 5 km of the acoustic recorder. This result suggests either that belugas are avoiding the vessel or that they reduce their vocalization in response to vessel traffic. Future work is needed to assess exactly how belugas are reacting to vessel traffic in this area and what the long-term consequences of these reactions are. Management measures for reducing these impacts must be carefully considered, especially since these vessels are very restricted in where they can travel, and many of the vessels are necessary for the livelihoods of local communities.