Cues, Creaks, and Decoys: Using Passive Acoustic Monitoring as a Tool for Studying Sperm Whale Depredation

Since 2003, a collaborative effort (SEASWAP) between fishers, scientists, and managers has researched how Alaskan sperm whales locate demersal longline fishing activity and then depredate sablefish from gear. Sperm whales constantly produce relatively low-frequency biosonar signals whenever foraging; therefore, over the past decade, passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) has become a basic tool, used for both measuring depredation activity and accelerating field tests of potential depredation countermeasures. This paper reviews and summarizes past published PAM research on SEASWAP, and then provides a detailed example of how PAM methods are currently being used to test countermeasures. The review covers two major research thrusts: (i) identifying acoustic outputs of fishing vessels that provide long-distance “cues” that attract whales to fishing activity; and (ii) validating whether distinctive “creak” sounds can be used to quantify and measure depredation rates, using both bioacoustic tags and statistical comparisons between visual and acoustic depredation estimates during federal sablefish surveys. The latter part of the paper then provides an example of how PAM is being used to study a particular potential countermeasure: an “acoustic decoy” which transmits fishing vessel acoustic cues to attract animals away from true fishing activity. The results of an initial 2011 field trial are presented to show how PAM was used to design the decoy signals and monitor the efficacy of the deployment. The ability of PAM to detect both whale presence and depredation behavior has reduced the need to deploy researchers or other specialists on fishing cruises. Instead, volunteer fishers can deploy “user-friendly” acoustic recorders on their gear, greatly facilitating the testing of various deterrents, and providing the industry and regulators a convenient and unobtrusive tool for monitoring both the scale and long-term spread of this behaviour across the Alaskan fishery.


Thode, A., D. Mathias, J. Straley, V. O’Connell, L. Behnken, D. Falvey, L. Wild, J. Calambokidis, G. Schorr, R. Andrews, J. Liddle, and P. Lestenkof. 2015. Cues, Creaks, and Decoys: Using Passive Acoustic Monitoring as a Tool for Studying Sperm Whale Depredation. ICES Journal of Marine Science 72(5): 1621-1636. doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsv024

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