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Anthropogenic Disturbance of Western Gray Whale Behavior Off Sakhalin Island, Russia
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The western North Pacific population of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) is critically endangered of extinction. The population size is estimated to be 131 individuals with 31 reproductive females. Throughout their potential home range, the western gray whale population face several threats to their future survival. On their only known feeding grounds off the northeastern coast of Sakhalin Island, Russia, anthropogenic activity has increased in the past decade due to oil and gas exploration and platform/pipeline construction. This dissertation examines the influences of geophysical seismic surveys (pulse sounds) and platform/pipeline installation (continuous sounds). Each chapter progressively improves upon behavioral models that assess changes in gray whale movements and respirations relative to anthropogenic activity. Theodolite tracking and focal follow methodologies were employed to collect gray whales' movement and respiration information during and in the absence of anthropogenic activity. Spatial, temporal, environmental, and acoustic (pulse and/or continuous) sound levels and non-sound related anthropogenic variables were included as explanatory variables to examine their influence on movement and respiration response variables, such as speed, orientations, dive/surface time, breathing rates, etc. During the 3-D seismic activity, gray whales traveled faster, changed directions of movement less, were recorded farther from shore and stayed underwater longer between respirations as the received sound level exposure increased. During platform/pipeline installations, western gray whales increased their distance from shore with indicators of stress (rapid breathing) and observed to be sensitive to close distance of approach by vessels. No acoustic influence on western gray whale behavior was found during a 4-D seismic survey; however, sample sizes were small in this study to sufficiently detect more subtle to moderate changes in gray whale behavior. These studies illustrate short-term influences anthropogenic activity had on western gray whale behavior which could lead to longer-term responses that may be detrimental to the survival of certain individuals and/or the population. A comprehensive analyses are proposed to increase sample sizes to identify subtle to moderate behavioral changes as well as examine alternative hypotheses to the null hypothesis of no impact used in this dissertation. With the potential to displace individuals/population out of critical feeding habitats needed for their annual survival and the expected increase of anthropogenic activity in the future, this dissertation highlights the importance to monitor and identify problems and suggest alternatives to development/activities that may be impacting this endangered population of gray whales.
Gailey, Glenn Andrew (2013). Anthropogenic Disturbance of Western Gray Whale Behavior Off Sakhalin Island, Russia. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from