Introduction: Boat traffic is recognized as a major contributor of underwater noise. Increasing presence of boats in coastal habitats is predicted to have important repercussions on the communication of marine mammals. In Costa Rica, the waters of the Caño Island Biological Reserve are an important breeding area for humpback whales from the Breeding-Stock G (BSG). Their predicted and abundant presence has fueled the development of whale watching activities as an important component of the local economy, and while the country has norms of conduct for this activity, whales often interact with multiple boats at the same time. The lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity to study the potential impacts of noise associated with boat traffic on the singing activity of humpback whales.
Objective: Determine whether noise levels and boat acoustic presence around Caño Island Biological Reserve changed during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and if it did, what is the impact on song detection of BSG humpback whales.
Methods: Acoustic recordings were made using a bottom-mounted autonomous underwater recorder for 30 days in September 2019, 2020, and 2021, resulting in a total recording effort of 480 hours.
Results: Our results show that broadband underwater noise levels (dBRMS) during pre-lockdown were significantly higher, particularly at frequencies below 1kHz, than during and post-lockdown. This is likely due to a decrease in the proportion of boat acoustic presence during the lockdown. Although the proportion of whale songs detected did not vary among years, whale songs were detected similarly throughout the day during the lockdown, compared to pre-and-post lockdown where the proportion of whale song presence decreased during hours when more boats were present.
Conclusions: This study shows a clear change in underwater noise levels during the COVID-19 lockdown, likely due to a decrease in boat presence. The study also highlights the potential impact of noise associated with boat traffic on humpback whale singing activity. The results of this study can inform the Conservation Areas of Osa (ACOSA) in charge of managing Caño Island Biological Reserve, to develop and implement mitigation measures to regulate underwater anthropogenic noise associated with tour boats.
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