The waters around New Zealand are home to a diverse range of marine mammals. Some of the most common cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) include Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori hectori) Maui’s dolphins (C. h. maui), killer whales (Orcinus orca), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus), common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), southern right whales (Eubalaena australis), and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus).Pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walrus) include the New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri), New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri), Leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), and Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina). Some species, such as Hector’s and Maui’s dolphin, or New Zealand sea lion are endemic to New Zealand, so not found anywhere else.
Seismic surveys are a source of loud impulsive noise that has the potential to cause disturbance to marine mammals. Impacts include permanent or temporary damage to the auditory system, avoidance, behavioural changes, such as alterations to dive or vocalisation patterns, and masking of important signals.
To reduce potential impact, the New Zealand government Department of Conservation (DOC) bought into effect the 2013 ‘Code of Conduct for Minimising Acoustic Disturbance to Marine Mammals from Seismic Survey Operations’ referred to commonly as ‘the Code’. Core objectives of the code are to minimise level of disturbance, and noise output, to increase scientific knowledge, and build effective working relationships between government, industry and research stakeholders. As part of the code, Marine Mammal Impact Assessments (MMIA) have to be submitted to, and agreed by, DOC prior to the survey starting. Where possible, seismic activity is conducted outside of key times (e.g. migrations), and outside of biologically important habitats (e.g. feeding grounds). Visual and acoustic monitoring by Marine Mammal Observers (MMO) and Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) Operators has to be completed prior to activation of the sound source, and they have the authorisation to request the sound source be turned off if marine mammals are present within the area during the survey.
The Code stipulates that in order to work in New Zealand waters Marine Mammal Observers and Passive Acoustic Monitoring Operators have to complete a DOC accredited assessment course. Using our handbook as course material, we have been compiling a competency assessment, and are happy to announce it has been accredited. This means we are able to assess experienced MMOs and PAM Operators that wish to take their skills to New Zealand. Only four companies are able to qualify Marine Mammal Observers, and we are the only company able to assess PAM Operators. Needless to say, we are all looking forward to running our assessments and to working more in New Zealand.