Noise Pollution Impacting Marine Animals Worse Than Previously Thought

A humpback whale off the coast of the Dominican Republic.

A humpback whale off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Christopher Michel/Flickr

Anthropogenic noise pollution is plaguing our oceans and stressing marine fauna far more than previously understood, researchers concluded in a new analysis of more than 10,000 academic papers published in the journal Science. Human-generated noise disrupts the behavior, physiology, and reproduction of marine organisms so much that it can lead to an increased risk of mortality.

In recent decades, the level of marine noise pollution has increased significantly due to the intensification of fishing, shipping, and infrastructure development. Human activity has not only made the ocean noisier, the analysis found, but it is also drowning out the sounds of its marine animals. “The landscape of sound — or soundscape — is such a powerful indicator of the health of an environment,” Ben Haplern, an ecologist at University of California, Santa Barbara and coauthor of the study, said in a statement. “Like we have done in our cities on land, we have replaced the sounds of nature throughout the ocean with those of humans.”

Sound is a crucial sensory signal for marine animals, as it travels farther than light and quicker than sound in air. Underwater sound allows animals to communicate and gather information at great distances and from all directions. They use sound to acoustically sense their surroundings, locate food, communicate, and warn each other of danger.

The study outlines several actions that can improve the ocean soundscape and potentially enable the recovery of some marine life, including policies to reduce propellor noise from ships. Mitigating the sounds of sonar equipment, pile driving, seismic air guns, and wind turbines can also help.

“No one really wants to live right next to a freeway because of the constant noise,” said Halpern. “For animals in the ocean, it’s like having a mega-freeway in your backyard.”

—Genevieve Tarino