Seal response to airgun sounds during summer seismic surveys in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea.

Pay-walled Peer Reviewed Publication 2001

Marine Mammal Science

Numbers, sighting distances, and behavior of seals were studied during a nearshore seismic program off northern Alaska in July-September 1996. We observed from the seismic vessel for 885.6 h, including all periods (day and night) when airguns operated and many periods without airguns. Of 422 seals seen, 421 were seen in daylight; 91-8% were ringed seals, 7.3% were bearded seals, and 0.9% were spotted seals. About 79% were first seen within 250 m of the seismic boat, and sighting rate declined rapidly at lateral distances > 50 m. During daylight, seals were seen at nearly identical rates (0.60-0.63/ h) during periods with no airguns firing, one airgun, and a “full?array” of 8-11 120-in3 airguns. However, seals tended to be farther away (P < 0.0001) during full-array seismic. There was partial avoidance of the zone <150 m from the boat during full-array seismic, but seals apparently did not move much beyond 250 m. “Swimming away” was more common during full-array than no-airgun periods, but relative frequencies of five behaviors did not differ significantly among distance categories. Airgun operations were interrupted 112 times when seals were sighted within safety radii (150–250 m). The National Marine Fisheries Service specified these radii in the Incidental Harassment Authorization issued for the project; they are based on a 190 dB re 1 μPa (rms) criterion for broadband received level. Methods for estimating numbers of seals potentially affected by the seismic program are described, and effectiveness of monitoring and mitigation is discussed. There is an urgent need for more data on effects of strong seismic pulses on seals.

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