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The Sound of Science: Dr. Ana Sirovic Awarded New & Continuing Funding to Further Marine Bioacoustic Research    

November 27, 2019

A blue whale surfaces near Catalina Island in California. Dr. Ana Sirovic is studying how human-created sounds relating to vessel traffic effect boat strikes with whales in California using bioacoustic listening and recording devices.

By Andréa Bolt

There are a multitude of ways in which to study how humans are affecting the ocean and the marine life within it - sound happens to be the way Texas A&M University at Galveston marine biology professor and bioacoustician Dr. Ana Sirovic measures such interactions.

Dr. Sirovic’s work was recently recognized in a big-as-a-blue-whale type of way - in research grants to the tune of approximately $160,000.

This funding, via the Benioff Ocean Initiative, Flora Family Foundation and United States Navy’s Living Marine Resources Program will aid Sirovic in better understanding the connection between human movement and whale strikes in the Santa Barbara Channel, as well as developing and deploying recording instruments to study and listen to the multitude of marine species in various areas.

Both grants are the continuation of projects Sirovic has been involved with for some time, relating to blue and fin whales and how by capturing and listening to the sounds they make, scientists like Sirovic can get closer to approaches for protection or mitigating impact of human activities on the species.

“We are asking biologically-important questions with this research. There are more humans inhabiting the earth and moving, traveling aboard ships and vessels than ever before, so of course we’ve seen an increase in ocean noise and how it is negatively affecting marine animals,” Sirovic stated.

Sirovic’s first study, through the Benioff Ocean Initiative, uses crowdsourcing for whatever big, important problem they want solved. In this case, the issue is working to understand and mitigate ship strikes with large whales in the Santa Barbara Channel. Said whale species also happen to be endangered or vulnerable to extinction.

The project attacks the issue in three separate ways. The first is through using acoustics by listening to whales in the area in near real-time and then attempting to alert ships passing by. The next approach involves studying whether detection of animals at the surface could be accomplished by an automated method. The last involves looking at historical data and environmental data, then triangulating on maps where and when the occurrence of these animals can be precipitated.

Sirovic and a colleague from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have been working on testing and fine-tuning their automated detector processes to better place their acoustic buoys in order to collect the most sounds possible. Part of her award has allowed for Sirovic to hire on analysts to extrapolate and identify calls recorded on the acoustic devices to then feed into their call library and help inform their algorithms related to buoy placement.

Sirovic and a team prepare to deploy bioacoustic equipment aboard the RV Trident
Aboard the RV Trident, Sirovic and a team prepare to deploy bioacoustic equipment into the Gulf of Mexico.

The additional funding is coming from living marine resources program, one of three parts of the U.S. Navy that funds marine mammal research.

This will allow Sirovic to work on methods that develop density estimates of blue and fin whales from a fixed point passive acoustic recorder, also known as high-frequency acoustic recording packages or HARPS.

“The idea, the question is that is we have passive acoustic recorders that are listening all the time, how can we convert the number of calls we hear on them to an actual number of animals? To do that, we need to know how often an animal calls and what’s the probability that it will call at any one time?” she explained. “What does 10 calls mean in number of animals? We’re developing models of calling behavior and calling probabilities. Also, from the HARP side of things, we’re working on developing detectors to automatically extract the calls. We have to get to that conversion number and quantity it.”

This grant award is helping Sirovic do just that by allowing her to pay for a postdoctoral scholar who is working on that part of the problem, i.e., extracting fin whale calls from multi-year data sets.

We’re sure every ship captain, diving enthusiast and “Finding Nemo” fan is hopeful Sirovic will continue swimming toward a science-backed solution to better manage whale traffic and human movement.


Media contact:
Andréa Bolt
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