Potential for spatial displacement of Cook Inlet beluga whales by anthropogenic noise in critical habitat
The population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska, USA, declined by nearly half in the mid-1990s, primarily from an unsustainable harvest, and was listed as endangered in 2008. In 2014, abundance was ~340 whales, and the population trend during 1999-2014 was -1.3% yr-1. Cook Inlet beluga whales are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts, and noise that has the potential to reduce communication and echolocation range considerably has been documented in critical habitat; thus, noise was ranked as a high potential threat in the Cook Inlet beluga Recovery Plan. The current recovery strategy includes research on effects of threats potentially limiting recovery, and thus we examined the potential impact of anthropogenic noise in critical habitat, specifically, spatial displacement. Using a subset of data on anthropogenic noise and beluga detections from a 5 yr acoustic study, we evaluated the influence of noise events on beluga occupancy probability. We used occupancy models, which account for factors that affect detection probability when estimating occupancy, the first application of these models to examine the potential impacts of anthropogenic noise on marine mammal behavior. Results were inconclusive, primarily because beluga detections were relatively infrequent. Even though noise metrics (sound pressure level and noise duration) appeared in high-ranking models as covariates for occupancy probability, the data were insufficient to indicate better predictive ability beyond those models that only included environmental covariates. Future studies that implement protocols designed specifically for beluga occupancy will be most effective for accurately estimating the effect of noise on beluga displacement.