Electronic navigation safety technology is to be used in a pioneering study of the potential impacts of marine traffic on whales, porpoises and dolphins in Scottish seas.
Because the sea mammals, known as cetaceans, are so dependent on hearing to communicate and feed, experts fear they are being harmed by increased noise in the world’s oceans caused by ships, seismic surveys and sonar.
Now scientists at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) will use an automatic identification system (AIS) transponder to collect detailed information about the movement of vessels off Scotland’s west coast.
They will also carry out underwater acoustic surveys to gain insights into the effects of the noise and movement of ships on species such as killer whales, harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins.
The areas to be covered range from the Mull of Kintyre to Cape Wrath and St Kilda, but will depend on weather conditions.
“This innovative approach provides us with an opportunity to enhance our long-term research, which is providing unprecedented insights into the distribution and range of cetaceans in Scotland’s seas as well as the challenges they face – including the unintentional consequences of human activities,” said Dr Conor Ryan, science officer for HWDT.
“The Hebrides may seem like a wilderness, but human impacts on the marine environment are significant and likely to increase with expansions in marine industries, such as aquaculture and renewable installations.
“Strengthening scientific understanding is crucial if we are to help industries ensure that their impacts on Scotland’s remarkable whales, dolphins and porpoise populations are minimal.”
Scotland’s western seas are one of Europe’s most important habitats for cetaceans, with 24 of the world’s estimated 92 species spotted in the region to date. Some are resident all year round while others spend only a short time here as they migrate to other places, but many are species of national and international conservation priority.
Surveys, which begin this week, will be carried out by scientists and trained volunteers aboard HWDT’s specialised research yacht Silurian.
AIS is an automatic tracking system that allows ships to ‘see’ each other in all conditions. It electronically identifies and locates nearby vessels, continuously transmitting details of their identity, position, speed and course.
As well as shedding new light on cetaceans, the researchers believe the surveys may also provide important information about the overall health of the marine environment.