New York noise, a top gripe for man, now a risk for endangered whales

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Noise in New York has always grated on people and now, with the cacophony engulfing surrounding waters, it is threatening the city’s newly discovered neighbors: endangered whales.

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Rare North Atlantic right whales and other species that use tonal and pulsating songs to find food and mates have been detected in New York waters by an underwater monitor that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Wildlife Conservation Society installed last year.

Aerial surveys since March have revealed 61 whales, including eight right whales, four sperm whales and 21 fin whales, all endangered species, as well as 15 humpback whales, according to state data.

Last week, a Wildlife Conservation Society team spotted humpback whales less than 550 yards (500 meters) from the beach in Rockaway, Queens, said senior scientist Howard Rosenbaum, co-leader of the survey.

“There are these magnificent creatures just off the coast, in less distance than most New Yorkers commute every day,” said his colleague, Woods Hole senior scientist Mark Baumgartner.

Ship strikes are a leading cause of death for whales around the Port of New York and New Jersey, the nation’s third-busiest, but researchers are also concerned about the effects of manmade noise there.

“Whales use sound - it’s one of their most important senses,” Baumgartner said. “There is a lot of conversation that goes on before mating, not unlike humans.”

He compared underwater noise from ships and other sources to a loud cocktail party that makes it impossible to be heard.

“Whales are losing opportunities to socialize with one other, to mate with one another,” Baumgartner said.

“If you interfere with these animals reproducing, it’s basically life and death to the species.”

New York, with its honking traffic, screeching subways and constant rebuilding, is notoriously noisy for humans. Noise remains residents’ No. 1 grievance, with 331,277 complaints tallied so far this year, Joseph Morrisroe, executive director of the city’s 311 hotline, said on Thursday. There were 419,617 such complaints in 2016.

Noise irks whales, too. When the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks halted East Coast shipping and made the ocean suddenly go quiet, their stress hormone levels dropped drastically, researchers said.

While commercial shipping is the greatest source of ocean noise for whales in New York, it soon may be upstaged by seismic exploration for oil and gas, Baumgartner said.

The Trump administration in June moved to allow energy companies to use seismic air guns for testing off the U.S. Atlantic coast.

Scientists were surprised to hear North Atlantic right whales, only 450 of which exist worldwide, throughout the winter in New York, rather than just during fall and spring migratory months, Baumgartner said. Further study, he added, may confirm his suspicion that whales were hanging around New York for the food, also not unlike humans.

Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Von Ahn