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Soundscapes and Seals - Scientist in Residence

Anthropogenic noise pollution has become a widespread issue in the world’s oceans and affects marine species. Currently, little is known of its impact on Australian fur seals, but a current Penguin Foundation funded study will reveal more.

Scientist in Residence

Phillip Island Nature Parks is excited to be hosting a scientist in residence, Jess Taylor, who is completing a PhD at the University of Sydney. Jess is working in collaboration with Phillip Island Nature Parks and the University of Paris-Saclay. Her project is looking at the effects of human-generated (anthropogenic) noise on the Australian fur seal breeding colony at Seal Rocks. This project is supported by the Penguin Foundation, Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment at the Ecological Society of Australia, and the Foundation for Australia’s Most Endangered Species (FAME).

This two year project takes multidisciplinary approach to assess the impacts of anthropogenic noise on Australian fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus): soundscape, behaviour, and stress hormone concentrations as key factors. In May, four hydrophones were installed at Seal Rocks to record underwater sounds 24 hours a day for a month.

Project overview:

Anthropogenic noise pollution has become a widespread issue in the world’s oceans, affecting many marine species. Little is known of its impact on Australian fur seals, but there is some evidence that loud boat noise can disrupt normal behaviour and vocal communication, which can negatively impact health and survival.

Seal Rocks is the largest Australian fur seal breeding colony and a key tourism destination. Visitation peaks during the pupping/breeding season, a time in which the colony is particularly vulnerable to disturbance. In addition, there are regular breaches of the minimum approach distances, which are 60 m for boats (with the exception of authorised tour and research vessels) and 260 m for jet-skis. Despite this, the level of noise produced by visitation and its impact on the colony remains unknown. The main aim of my project is therefore to determine the impact of anthropogenic noise, specifically boat noise, on the Seal Rocks colony, and to assess whether the current management strategy at the site is adequate.

To address this, we are taking a multidisciplinary approach to create an acoustic impact model of visitation at Seal Rocks. The model will be based on data from underwater acoustic and visual monitoring of boats approaching Seal Rocks, pup health, physiological indicators of stress, and behavioural response to controlled boat noise exposure. All data will be collected during high visitation (summer) and low visitation (autumn/winter) for two consecutive years to facilitate comparisons between season and between year.

The outcomes of my project will be communicated to key stakeholders to inform management regulations at Seal Rocks. In addition, the developed acoustic impact model will be adaptable to other Australian fur seal colonies, and to other seal and marine mammal species, with the goal of promoting best-practice guidelines for ecotourism at sensitive marine sites.

Why is this important?

The data collected during these observations has a dual purpose. First, it will be used to validate the underwater acoustic recordings (which will be happening concurrently), by providing reference points in space and time. Second, by visually cataloguing and quantifying visitation at Seal Rocks, we can identify visitation hotspots. Then, when we’re assessing pup health and stress, we can see if and how this varies in parts of the colony with differing exposure to visitation.

Hear more from Jess about the project in her video overview.

Photo credits: Johno Rudge and Holly Baird of KinaDiving

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