As she was working on a whale watching boat in southeast Alaska, Michelle Fournet became immune to the constant loud, mechanical sounds of the boat’s engines. It became background noise to her, but as she observed whales day after day, she became concerned how the noise was affecting the marine mammals she was traveling to see. More broadly, she found herself becoming interested in human impacts on marine animals’ health and behavior.

Fournet, who recently received an M.S. in Marine Resources Management from Oregon State University, has started working towards a Ph.D. in Fisheries Science, working in Holger Klinck‘s Bioacoustics Lab. His research focuses on the least invasive ways to collect data about noise using technologies created in his lab.

Because Fournet is focusing her research on marine mammals of the Oregon Coast, such as harbor porpoises and beaked whales, gathering behavioral data by observation is very difficult. The ocean area around the coast features 30 foot wave swells at time, and typical Oregon rainy weather and the coast’s short shelf make it difficult to even find the animals, much less observe them. Added to this is the fact that many of the species Fournet is studying rarely come to the surface means that traditional ways of collecting data are inefficient.

Enter bioacoustics – eavesdropping on these large marine mammals. Recording the sounds that they make is a cost effective way of gathering data. Rather than sending out boatfuls of researchers trained to spot behavioral patterns, an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone,  can monitor an area where mammals are known to visit. In addition, unlike a boat, (whose noise may further affect the animals) there is almost zero impact to the species that the hydrophone is monitoring.

Fournet is excited to learn more about how certain noises affect certain species on the Oregon coast, especially considering that Newport, Oregon, has been named the future home of the Pacific Marine Energy Center, the first wave energy test site in the United States.

“i need to find out if this is a problem,” explained Founet. “If it is, we may need to change how we build and interact with these species. And bioacoustics is the best way for us to study this.”

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