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Listening for beluga William D. Halliday, Stephen J. Insley, Tyler de Jong, and Xavier Mouy

1. Arctic marine mammals can be very difficult to monitor due to the remote locations where they live and the presence of sea ice.

2. We used passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) near Sachs Harbour, NWT, to study seasonal trends in the presence of marine mammals. PAM uses underwater acoustic recorders to record sound underwater, including the sounds made by marine mammals.

3. Bowhead and beluga whales were present in the broken-ice and ice-free periods, arriving in late April and migrating away in August through October. Bearded seals did not start calling until ice had formed, and called the most during their mating season from April to June; ringed seals called sporadically all year round.

4. PAM provided a year-round record of the presence of marine mammals, and further monitoring will help to understand how climate change (sea ice loss) and increased shipping affect when animals are present in Sachs Harbour.

Listen to the sounds of the Arctic:

The Arctic is changing rapidly, leading to changes in the environment and increased human activities. It is crucial to monitor the distribution of different animal species as these changes occur. Arctic marine mammals are difficult to monitor using traditional methods because they live in remote areas around sea ice.

Passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) is a method that provides long-term records of species that make sounds, and is an excellent tool for monitoring marine mammals in remote locations. We used PAM to monitor marine mammals near Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories, over 15 months. We examined how the presence of different marine mammals changed through time and with patterns of sea ice. We heard both bowhead and beluga whales from late April through August (belugas) and October (bowheads). Both whales migrated into the region as ice broke up in the spring, and migrated out before ice formed in the autumn.

We heard bearded seals from October through June, and heard them 24 hours a day from April through June. Bearded seals generally only called when sea ice was present. We heard ringed seals occasionally in all months, but they were generally quiet. Since the ice-free season is supposed to lengthen in the future because of climate change, with ice breaking up earlier and forming later in the year, there may be large shifts in migration timing for whales and timing of calling for bearded seals. It will be important to continue monitoring these regions to determine how sea ice loss affects these species.

Read the full paper in Arctic ScienceSeasonal patterns in acoustic detections of marine mammals near Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories

Corresponding author: Stephen Insley, sinsley@wcs.org

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