ESO Completes Arabian Sea Humpback Whale Acoustic Analysis: A Sound is Worth a Thousand Words

الحوت الاحدب، Hupback Whales

Humpback whale off the coast of Oman (copyright Environment Society of Oman).  Male humpback whales sing complex songs underwater. Passive recorders stationed in various locations off the coast have confirmed that Arabian Sea humpback whales sing different songs to their Southern Hemisphere Indian Ocean counterparts, and provided insight into the seasonal variations in humpback whale song in different locations.  One surprise finding includes the detection of Southern Hemisphere singers at one location during the Omani summer, when Arabian sea whales were not singing.

The following is a press release from the Environment Society of Oman:

The Environment Society of Oman (ESO) in partnership with New England Aquarium (NEA) have recently finalised their findings on a two-year acoustic dataset on the Arabian Sea Humpback Whales (ASHW). The aim of the project was to document spatial and temporal distribution of Arabian Sea humpback whales in the region, investigate singing behaviour and geographic variation, as well as assess potential threats to the population posed by anthropogenic noise. The project was conducted off the coast of Oman in Hallaniyats Bay and the Gulf of Masirah from 2011 to 2013.

Currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the Arabian Sea humpback whale has a population estimated to be less than 100. The study was undertaken as a matter of urgency and as a means to identify conservation solutions by acoustically assessing the presence and seasonality of whales, and monitoring the amount and effects of ambient noise on whales. Measuring sound is a critical factor for cetaceans as hearing is their primary sense used for foraging, migration and reproduction, and impairment of communication and hearing can have serious population consequences. The study involved three components, seasonal and geographic detections of humpback whale vocalizations off Oman, characterizing ambient noise in the monitored regions, and comparing song structure variation across the western Indian Ocean, with ground-breaking results.

Suaad Al Harthi, Executive Director at the Environment Society of Oman, stated “I would like to thank our sponsors Shell Development Oman for funding and supporting this project. The research and the acoustic analysis has revealed valuable information about the Arabian Sea humpback whales, confirming the areas that are important to them, and the potential impact of noise pollution. Our conservation program is ongoing and with the support of local and international partners we are able to develop and address conservation concerns.”.

The detection of whale presence involves the highly effective method of Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) for assessing distribution across broad spatial and temporal scales. From continuously recording at three sites for two years, and a total of 1,369 acoustic recording days, it was discovered that the population utilizes both the Gulf of Masirah and Hallaniyat Bay for breeding. However, the Hallaniyats, had more frequent singing of Arabian Sea Humpback Whales, suggesting it may be a more important breeding area. Nevertheless, the study clearly indicated that both locations are considered “hot spots” for the population. There was also a shift in distribution from south to north into the Gulf of Masirah towards the end of the breeding season, apparently as the population shifted into the non-breeding season.

Muna Al Shukaili, General Manager of External Relations and Social Investment Lead at Shell Development Oman said, “We are proud to sponsor this initiative and help raise awareness on the impact human activities have on the Arabian Sea humpback whales. This is the reason we have collaborated with ESO and we hope that a lasting solution can be found for these vulnerable mammals. Preserving the ocean biodiversity is part of Shell’s commitment towards the environment and sustainable development in Oman.”

Andrew Willson, Senior Marine Consultant at Fives Oceans Environmental Services, said, “This study has been a break-through for the team’s work in the Arabian Sea given that the sophisticated equipment and subsequent analysis has allowed us to monitor for the occurrence of whales within their critical habitat almost year round. This significantly extends knowledge gained from conventional small vessel surveys conducted along the coast of Oman over the last 18 years. The technique has capitalised on one of the key traits of marine mammals; that they are highly dependent on communication through acoustics for their survival”.

Considered the most consequential finding of the overall study in the context of conservation, the analysis of ambient sound sought to determine potential threats in each location.  Using sophisticated standardized analyses, biological, physical and anthropogenic noise sources were assessed to provide a profile of the “soundscape” over time and across frequencies.  Areas around Port Duqm with elevated anthropogenic noise appeared to have a decreased level of humpback whale singing activity, suggesting that whales were either disturbed or their song displays were masked in vicinity of the port. This indicates that further assessment and action in the preservation of the Arabian Sea humpback whale is highly advisable.

Dr. Salvatore Cerchio, the Project Lead Researcher from the New England Aquarium said, “In-depth analyses and findings around the world on the impact of loud anthropogenic noise sources on whales are compelling. This type of noise pollution is widely recognised as having a negative effect on the marine life and marine ecosystems alike. Our findings off Oman indicate that the same processes are likely at work in the Arabian Sea, and could be a contributor to the low number of Arabian Sea humpback whales living off the coast of Oman. What we need to do now, is work together with governments towards putting in place a marine noise policy and learn how to better monitor and manage it.”

The final section of the acoustic analysis involved an oceanic comparison of humpback whale songs that benefited from a large-scale international collaboration, with contributions from researchers with song samples from several regions, including National Institute of Ocean Technology, India; Globice, Reunion Island; and Accademia del Leviatano, Italy, working off the Comoros Islands.  The song structure of humpback whales off Oman were compared to samples from the west coast of India and from the Southwest Indian Ocean (SWIO) to assess isolation of the population from Southern Hemisphere populations, and to describe their singing behaviour. Analysis indicated several key findings, revealing that songs from Oman and India across the Arabian Sea appeared to be very similar, but that the ASHWs song remained distinct and consistently different from the SWIO song across the years. This finding reinforces our understanding of isolation of the ASHW as previously indicated by genetic and photographic studies.

However, two surprise findings were also of great interest. Unlike humpback whale song around the world, which changes progressively each year, the song of whales off Oman changed very little across three years, remaining virtually the same during the study period.  Moreover, it was found that some Southwest Indian Ocean animals moved into the Arabian Sea during the Omani summer when the ASHWs were not singing; however, the ASHWs did not learn or pick up there song as happens elsewhere in the world.  The overall conclusion drawn from this study of singing behaviour is that behavioural isolation mechanisms may exist to prevent the mixing of the Arabian Sea population with Southern Hemisphere animals.

In summary, the acoustic study of the Arabian Sea humpback whales has provided many new insights into the behaviour and conservation of the population. Only through in depth studies, and large-scale international collaborations as demonstrated in this project, will the recovery of the Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale population be assured.

press coverage for this report includes:

You can download copies of the reports on this study that were presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission in 2016 and 2018.

New Indian Ocean Cetacean Identification Cards available

IOTC cetacean Identification cards image

The IOTC has produced a valuable new resource for identification of cetaceans in the Indian Ocean.

A great new resource has just become available to all those working with cetaceans or cetacean-fisheries interactions in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.  The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) has been working on the development of a set of cetacean identification cards for Indian Ocean Fisheries.  These have been finalised and released for free download.
The cards are available as part of a series of resources and ID cards produced and available through the IOTC.  The Cetacean ID cards were designed by ASWN member, Gill Braulik, and their development was supported in part by the Marine Mammal Commission, which has also supported the ASWN and its various initiatives. The IOTC website contains the following text and link to download the PDF:

‘The IOTC Secretariat has finalised the development of field identification cards for cetaceans in the Indian Ocean. The cards were developed by an independent consultant, Dr Gill Braulik, in collaboration with the Working Party on Ecosystems and Bycatch at the request of the Scientific Committee. This guide is a tool for the identification of the main cetacean species interacting with pelagic fisheries for tuna and tuna-like species. It is a small-sized, waterproof, pocket guide intended for use onboard vessels by fishers and scientific observers to improve the quality of the data collected in the IOTC Area of Competence.The identification cards were produced in English and will shortly be published and printed in French and other priority languages identified by the Working Party on Ecosystems and Bycatch thanks to support from the Marine Mammal Commission. Please send enquiries regarding hard copies to IOTC-secretariat@fao.org.

You may download the identification cards from the following here. or from: http://iotc.org/science/species-identification-cards

Image from IOTC Cetacean ID cards

Example of one of the species ID cards produced by the IOTC.   A limited number of hard copies (laminated and pocket-size for convenience on board vessels) are available from the IOTC Secretariat. It is also available for download in PDF format.

Back from the Blue – the latest ASWN newsletter

Newsletter image

After a long hiatus, we are pleased to share the next edition of the Arabian Sea Whale network newsletter.  Compiling this issue was a rewarding exercise,  as it provided an opportunity to reflect on all of the great achievements that network members have made over the past year.

Please feel free to download it by clicking on the link below, and please share it widely with friends and colleagues and via social networks!  We will try to keep the momentum going with more frequent issues in the coming months and years.   Please let us know if you have content or ideas for the next issue.  In the meantime, happy reading!

ASWN 2018_10 Newsletter_Final

 

Oman hosts multi-stakeholder workshop on responsible whale and dolphin watching

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Dr. Paul Forestell of the Pacific Whale Foundation shares nearly 40 years of international experience in the whale watching sector.

 In August 2018, Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), Five Oceans Environmental Services (5OES) and the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) collaborated to organise a two-day workshop on responsible whale and dolphin watching. The workshop was held in Muscat, Oman, and hosted by the MECA. The 26 invited participants included representatives of the ESO, 5OES, MECA, the Royal Oman Police Costal Guards, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Transport and Communication, the Port of Duqm, and Sultan Qaboos University, Marine Science and Fisheries Course.

The workshop commenced with a series of presentations on the history and context of whale and dolphin watching in Oman to date, the potential benefits of responsible whale watching, and a summary of workshops conducted for and with operators in 2013 and 2014. In presentations by ESO’s  Suaad al Harthi and 5OES’ Robert Baldwin, participants were given an overview of how the Industry in Oman was started in 1998, at which time there was a single operator in Muscat, and has grown and spread over the past 30  years to include multiple operators in several different locations in Oman (see figure below).  In 2008  the dolphin watching industry in Oman was estimated to generate roughly 1.24 million USD annually (Ponnampalam, 2011),  a figure which is sure to have increased significantly as the industry has grown.

As a natural resource that helps to attract international tourism to Oman, whales and dolphins require careful study and protection. It is vital that the whale and dolphin watching industry, and those responsible for managing it understand the animals’ distribution and conservation needs, and take active measures to prevent the negative impacts that can occur when boats approach too closely,  too quickly, or too frequently.  Collectively the ESO and 5OES have spent over 20 years studying the over 20 species of whales and dolphins that occur in Oman’s waters, contributing to current knowledge and understanding of their ecology, biology and conservation needs.  Some species targeted for tourism, such as the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin and the Arabian Sea humpback whale are considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List for Threatened Species (Braulik et al., 2017, Minton et al., 2008), and require extra conservation  measures.

Building on this body of knowledge, and keen to protect Oman’s whales and dolphins, MECA presented its plans to amend wildlife protection regulations to specifically include 20 species of whales and dolphins, and to better define the concept of ‘harm’ in these regulations to include touching, approaching too closely, or otherwise negatively impacting normal processes like feeding,  mating or resting.  MECA is also considering introducing a permitting procedure that would require whale and dolphin tourism operators to meet certain conditions and minimum standards beyond the (safety) requirements for more general marine tourism.

Oman WW map

Target species and areas of whale and dolphin watching in Oman

Dr. Paul Forestell, Director of International Activities at the Pacific Whale Foundation shared the experiences gained from nearly 40 years of whale and dolphin watching in different Pacific locations. He described a common long-term trajectory for whale watching tourism industries as they develop over time:

Stages of dolphin watching industry

Stages in development of whale watching (From Forestell and Kaufman, 1994, 1996)

Participants identified the phase of development for each of the dolphin watching areas in Oman, and discussed the roles of different stakeholders in these different phases of development.  The objective in each case, is to find ways to maximise economic and other benefits for local communities and the country as a whole, while minimising the potentially negative effects on the whales and dolphins targeted for tourism.  This balance requires some form of regulation and/or guidance from the relevant authorities.

While debating how to best achieve this balance in Oman, topics discussed included:

  • The pros and cons of voluntary versus mandatory regulations;
  • The challenges of enforcing regulations;
  • The importance of consulting stakeholders such as tour operators and fishermen in developing and implementing regulations;
  • The importance of training and awareness-raising in conjunction with, or prior to the introduction of (new) regulations;
  • the use of Apps that allow tour operators or guides to log their tracks and observations, thus allowing tourism to contribute to scientific understanding of the target species;
  • The importance of engine choice and maintenance of vessels used for whale and dolphin watching to minimise underwater noise and disturbance;

The final sessions of the workshop were dedicated to designing a road map toward more sustainable whale and dolphin watching in Oman. Participants agreed that the initial step for the development of responsible whale and dolphin watching guidelines is the formation of a national planning group/committee, most likely under the Ministry of Tourism.  In the meantime, ESO and MECA can coordinate with MoTC on developing mutual awareness raising campaigns to target boat owners and operators, as well as continue with research and monitoring activities to better inform the industry.

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Participants to the workshop included representatives of different branches of government, law enforcement, NGOs and universities.

The workshop paid tribute to Dr. Carole Carson, and Greg Kaufman, both of whom were involved in the initiation of responsible whale and dolphin watching in Oman, but sadly passed away in recent years.

 

 References

Braulik, G., K. Findlay, S. Cerchio, R. Baldwin and W. Perrin, 2017: Sousa plumbea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. e.T82031633A82031644. Downloaded on 10 December 2017., http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/82031633/0.

Minton, G., T. J. Q. Collins, C. Pomilla, K. P. Findlay, H. C. Rosenbaum, R. Baldwin and R. L. Brownell Jr, 2008: Megaptera novaeangliae, Arabian Sea subpopulation. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/132835.

Ponnampalam, L. S., 2011: Dolphin Watching in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman: Tourist Perceptions and Actual Current Practice. Tourism in Marine Environments, 7, 81-93.

Arabian Sea humpback whales listed under India’s Recovery Programme for Critically Endangered Species

Good news from India! The Arabian Sea Humpback whale has been added to the Central Government’s Recovery Programme for Critically Endangered SpeciesThe programme, which falls under the Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change, India (MoEFCC), is a component of a Centrally sponsored scheme titled ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats’. 

Whale Photo - 05 Oct 05 017

Humpback whale tail fluke photographed by the Indian Coast Guard in 2005-2006
Coast guards aboard the vessel Tarabai, 30 nautical miles from
the shore of Jakhau spent more than three hours  in their efforts to
photograph these wonderful marine mammals.

In June 2018, Arabian Sea humpback whales were one of four species to be added to the Recovery programme during the 49th Meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife held in New Delhi.  Seventeen species (including the Ganges River dolphin) had been previously identified, bringing the new total up to 21.  The MoEFCC has requested the Chief Wildlife Wardens of coastal States in India to initiate  ASHW research and conservation activities for the next 5 years in collaboration with Scientific Institutions and Universities, with the aim of producing an Action Plan for the future.

 

News links:

Marine mammal training symposium and survey completed in India

Cruise report photo

NOAA affiliated trainer, Suzanne Yin discusses how to identify different species with Christopher Roy (L) and Chandru
Krishnamoorthy (R), while other trainees use the big eye binoculars to search for cetaceans.

 

In December 2017,  India hosted a two-part workshop and training course, aimed to build capacity for marine mammal research and conservation throughout the country.  The first part of the workshop involved marine mammal scientists from the US, India and beyond. The second component the Marine Mammal Research in India Symposium was hosted by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru. A multispecies cetacean systematic survey training was conducted on the 70 m FORV Sagar Sampada from December 15 to 18th, 2017, off Kochi, India. This first-of-its-kind broad-scale, line-transect survey training provided 10 trainees from various institutions across India with the skills to systematically collect, record, and report cetacean visual data.

This initiative is an example of a successful Indo-US collaboration involving NOAA Fisheries, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE), Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), India,  and the University of Washington, USA.

During the pre-survey classroom lectures on 14 December 2017, participants learned about the basics of species identification, data collection and abundance estimation, and the importance of conducting systematic marine mammal surveys for marine resources management and species conservation. During the nearly three days at sea, trainees received instructions on the methods used to detect and record marine mammal observations at sea, following methods that are widely used globally to determine abundance estimates of marine mammal populations.

Despite poor weather and visibility,  12 marine mammal observations were made during the cruise, including several dolphin species and one whale sighting (a Bryde’s whale).  The full report of the cruise can be accessed here.

This marks an important step forward in awareness raising and capacity building for marine mammal research and conservation in India.  It is hoped that similar capacity building be conducted throughout ASWN member countries.

ASWN at the 2018 International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee meeting

Lake and castle 2017

Lake Bled – and the view from the meeting rooms at the IWC’s Scientific Committee meetings in 2018

The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) met from April 25th- May 7th in Bled, Slovenia.  The ASWN was well represented at this meeting with invited participants from Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, the Environment Society of Oman, Five Oceans Environmental Services, the Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF, and various international scientists who have been involved in research and conservation of whales in the Arabian Sea.  Despite being unable to attend in person,  invited ASWN members from  Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India submitted valuable documents to the meeting.  As such,  ASWN members presented multiple papers with updates and information about whale research and conservation efforts in the Arabian Sea.  Most of these were presented to the sub-committee that focused on conservation management plans (CMP), although aspects of Arabian Sea whale work were also discussed in the Southern Hemisphere (SH) subcommittee, the subcommittee looking at environment and health issues for  whales (E), and the subcommittee focusing on photo-identification databases for whale research (PH).  Links to download the papers that were presented and discussed can be found blow.

The papers were well received and generated valuable discussion and feedback. The scientific committee commended the work that had been done, and encouraged the continuation of the various research and conservation efforts underway including:

  • regional collaboration for research and capacity building;
  • work toward a joint CMS-IWC conservation management plan;
  • collection of data on whale distribution through Pakistan’s crew-based observer programme;
  • satellite tagging and threat- and health assessments of humpback whales off the coast of Oman;
  • collection of data on whale strandings, sightings, and song off the coast of India;
  • more extensive comparison of humpback whale song recorded off the coasts of Oman and India as well as other Indian Ocean regions.

Three modest funding proposals were submitted to the IWC SC with an aim toward achieving some of these recommendations. The outcome of these proposals will be known after the IWC Commissioners’ meeting takes place in Brazil in September.  The IWC SC report is still undergoing final editing and revisions. We will disseminate the report as soon as it is publicly available. In the meantime, here are the links to the papers presented by ASWN members at the meeting:

Oman team in Slovenia

The Oman team, meeting between sessions to discuss research and conservation priorities