Quiet Salish Sea lets scientists study endangered killer whales

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

When I saw this article about scientists studying killer whales in the Salish Sea, the first question I had was, “Where is the Salish Sea?” A quick online search revealed that it’s the complex set of waterways near Canada’s Vancouver Island, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and the Strait of Georga and Johnstone Strait separating the island from the mainland. Increasing noise levels have been harming killer whales there, who rely on sound for communication and for echolocating food.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there has been a 30% decrease in commercial shipping traffic into the Port of Vancouver from China. Decreases in other marine traffic have led to a noise reduction of about 75%.

The Salish Sea is murky due to sediments carried from the Simon Fraser River. Killer whales can see 5-10 meters in the water, but can find prey at greater distances and can communicate with others in their pod for kilometers.

Killer whales are also very social and are in almost constant communication with other members of their pods. But shipping noise, which has been doubling almost every decade for three or four decades, interferes with their communication.

We hope the COVID-19 lockdown’s quiet will allow scientists to learn more about killer whales, and that when marine traffic resumes, steps will be taken to make the waters quieter than they have been.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

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