Human-generated sound and marine mammals
Tyack, Peter L.
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Most species of large whales are endangered because for centuries whaling fleets have decimated their populations. In the late 1960s, marine-mammal biologists discovered that fishermen setting nets for tuna in the Pacific Ocean were killing more than 100,000 dolphins a year. The cause of marine-mammal conservation became so popular at the dawn of the environmental movement that one of the first environmental accomplishments of the US Congress was to enact the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which prohibits the killing or injuring of marine mammals. Today, small remnant populations of whales, such as the North Atlantic right whale, are threatened by entanglement in fishing gear and collisions by ships. Indeed, marine biologists have estimated that hundreds of thousands of marine mammals are killed each year in fishing gear. Inadvertent effects of human activities can pose a serious risk to coastal populations, as evidenced by the recent extinction of the Chinese river dolphin due to fishing, pollution, and overdevelopment of the Yangtze River. A few decades ago, conservation efforts focused on reducing the intentional hunting of marine mammals. Nowadays, when hunts for marine mammals are better controlled, the slow degradation of habitat from a combination of sources may have a bigger impact. For example, biologists have documented cases in which the effects of coastal development—including noise, pollution, and dredging—have caused marine mammals to abandon critical breeding habitat. Noise in particular is at issue in legal actions that have been brought against the US Navy for sonar exercises that may have caused whales to strand and die.
Author Posting. © American Institute of Physics, 2009. This article is posted here by permission of American Institute of Physics for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Physics Today 62 n.11 (2009): 39-44.