Blue whale photograph taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute's September, 2006 field season tagging blue whales near the Channel Islands of California

Cetaceans have a negative response to summer maritime traffic in Westeran Mediterranean Sea

A team of researchers of several Italian organizations has published on May 2015 its findings about the responses of cetaceans in high sea waters to summer maritime traffic in the Western Mediterranean Sea. This post is a summary of this study. 

INTRODUCTION

Nowadays, cetaceans have to face several threats, like the loss of their habitat, depletion of resources, interaction with fisheries and chemical and acoustic pollution, among others. In the case of ship transport, it can cause long-term changes in distribution, short-term changes in behaviour or direct physical injuries (e. g. collisions).

The Mediterranean Sea is one of the world’s busiest waterways. Moreover, shipping traffic is growing together with the concern of its impacts on fauna. In addition, we have to have in consideration that summer month are the busiest in naval traffic, especially due to the increase on cruise ships and passenger ferries.

The goal of this study was to outcome if the intensity of traffic in high sea waters was statistically different between presence and absence of cetacean sightings.

STUDY AREA AND DATA COLLECTION

Because of most of the Mediterranean cetaceans are mainly pelagic and there is a lack of information in these areas, the research had been conducted along six transects within shipping routes that connects Italy, France and Spain in high sea waters (placed in Ligurian-Provençal basin, the northern and central Tyrrhenian Sea and the Sardinian and Balearic Seas).

Mediterranean Sea basin (Picture from Encylopaedia Britannica)
Mediterranean Sea basin (Picture from Encylopaedia Britannica)

The transects were surveyed from June to September between 2009 and 2013 using ferries as observation platforms. During this period, more than 95,000 km were surveyed and the presence of eight cetacean species was recorded.

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CETACEANS AND MARITIME TRAFFIC

In locations with cetacean sightings, the number of vessels was 20% lower than the number of vessels in the absence of sightings. In the case of the three most frequently sighted species; fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) and sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus); this difference was, respectively, 18%, 20% and 2%. Concerning other species, in the case of Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) the difference was 29% and in the Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus) was 43%. It was found that for bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) the difference was insignificant. Finally, for common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and for pilot whale (Globicephala melas) any conclusion can be given.

Nevertheless, despite the number of ships recorded during cetacean sightings was lower in all areas, the percentage difference range from 11 to 49% among areas.

So, in high sea areas during summer, where cetaceans were seen, there were a significantly lower abundance of ships. Some explanations can be given: animals could tend to avoid more impacted zones with small displacements by seeking areas with fewer vessels, could change their distribution to occupy low traffic areas or could increase diving activity where intense traffic occurs. The intensity of the response of cetaceans to the intensity of traffic has important differences among areas and species. So, there are several factors that affects this percentage difference, like specific ecological needs and local environmental conditions. 

In the case of fin whale, where marine traffic is intense, the presence of fin whales is generally lower, with the exception occurring in the central part of the Ligurian Sea. The explanation could be that this region is ecologically favourable in summer since it is a feeding ground for this species and these whales are present for feeding reasons. Therefore, there is a coexistence between traffic and fin whales.

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) (Picture from Circe)
Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) (Picture from Circe)

Another example is striped dolphin. Due to its high mobility, this dolphin can avoid the presence of vessels and this could be the reason why there is a negative response between this species and ship presence.

Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) (Picture from Marc Arenas Camps)
Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) (Picture from Marc Arenas Camps)

About sperm whale and Cuvier’s beaked whale, there were no difference in both species in the Ligurian Sea and the reason probably is that sperm and Cuvier’s beaked whale have their feeding grounds in this basin and, moreover, the slopes and submarine canyons are confined in specific areas. However, differences are observed in other areas.

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) (Picture from Gabriel Barathieu).
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) (Picture: Gabriel Barathieu, Creative Commons).
Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) (Picture: Todd Pusser, Arkive).
Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) (Picture: Todd Pusser, Arkive).

Finally, bottlenose dolphin did not show any response to traffic. Probably, because it is a coastal species, it is more used to sharing its typical habitat with maritime traffic.

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) (Picture: Brandon Cole).
Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) (Picture: Brandon Cole).

REFERENCES

This post has been based on this paper:

  • Campana, I; Crosti, R; Angeletti, D; Carosso, L, David, L; Di-Méglio, N; Moulins, A; Rosso, M; Tepsich, P & Arcangeli, A (2015). Cetacean response to summer maritime traffic in the Western Mediterranean Sea. Marine Environmental Research, 109, 1-8

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