Noise Pollution on Ocean Life

Man is definitely more invincible when he keeps close contact with nature.

And yet in the 21st century, many people feel suffocating despair when they seek out a quiet spot, where sounds of a loud bluetooth speaker and voices interfere with the swish of wind through the trees.

Noise pollution can affect our physical and mental health. Growing populations and increasing urbanization is adding to the cacophony of sound we’re already having to deal with.   

Even our beautiful oceans are no longer the peaceful retreats they once were. Human-created noise has turned them into noisy, turbulent places where marine creatures feel anxious and disturbed.

Types of  anthropogenic noise pollution:

  • Cargo and leisure ship motors. Both cargo and leisure ships have increased in numbers in recent years.
  • Military SONAR with submarine detection
  • Pile driving – offshore blasting for ports, bridges etc.
  • Seismic air gun noise – oil exploration
  • Roar from coastal jet skis
  • Air guns for geological surveys

No Longer a ‘Silent World’

For many, the ultimate peaceful experience is scuba diving – that peace and quiet amid beauty that is so hard to find these days. Is life below the waves still looked upon as a ‘silent world’? What do the 178,000– to more than 10 million different species living below the waves have to say about noise pollution in their watery kingdom?

Unfortunately, even in modern times, scientists aren’t 100% clued up on the ocean’s many creatures. Yes, there is information on the large mammals and how they’re affected by noise pollution, but not much is known on the smaller marine creatures.

Sea creatures are also having to contend with global warming. Excessive carbon dioxide is now causing acidification of the oceans because of climate change. This acidic water absorbs less sound, creating a noisier underwater world.

The Health of Marine Ecosystems in Jeopardy

In the past, marine life has always been able to detect sound – so important to the many marine species there are. Changes to sounds under the sea may have more effects on ecosystem health than one thought, upsetting the way sea creatures feed, mate, communicate and move.

Studies show that anthropogenic noise or human-made noise can cause changes in social behavior, altered metabolisms and also affect the health of marine ecosystems. Noises reduce a sea creatures ability to hear environmental cues that are so necessary for survival as well, making them susceptible to predation.

The Beaching of Whales – Naval sonar Activity?

One has to wonder if whales and dolphins that beach themselves aren’t a result of noisy activities below the ocean surface? Determining the cause of a stranding can be difficult as scientists often don’t have details of what preceded the stranding.

Scientists believe whales and dolphins want to escape noise and reach shallower waters. This isn’t good because shallow water also impairs the sonar that whales use for navigation. The whales become confused, and this could drive them to beach.

Look at the 150 short-finned pilot whales that beached themselves in March 2018 on a beach in western Australia – Hamelin Bay. They all died. In this particular event, the exact reason for the beaching is unknown.

This particular incident came after a stranding of about 145 pilot whales washed ashore at Stewart Island in New Zealand. Were they fleeing from noise?

Noise Pollution Changes Behavior Patterns

Whales do beach if they are ill, injured or old, but so many whales at one time beaching themselves tells us that there is something else more sinister. It could so easily be noise pollution, however there is no single cause. Most mass strandings remain unexplained.

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes whales to beach themselves and it remains a mystery. Marine noise has certainly been implicated in mass strandings. Increasing evidence suggests that noises from human beings may be driving up these occurrences.

It’s becoming so serious that even the United Nations is stepping in – giving the nod for resolutions to conserve ocean health and to also tackle the effects that underwater noise is having on marine life.

The ‘Whale Song’ is being Silenced

Marine life relies on sound for both navigation and communication. Migratory routes and feeding grounds occur along shallow coastlines. These days the coastlines are so noisy, that female whales for instance, can’t hear the male’s ‘whale song’ through all the din. Because of this racket, the whales have to forfeit breeding opportunities.

Silencing the Oceans – Help from Different Organizations

The call for international regulation of ocean noise has been expressed, and there are research papers addressing the effects of underwater noise on marine species. Some of these papers are expected to bring about far-reaching regulatory implications.

There are also regulatory agencies around the world helping to make big strides in eliminating noise pollution below the waves.

  • Fortunately, organizations such as NRDC work to safeguard the earth. Their members work hard to achieve protection for certain coastal waters.

They have managed to push back seismic exploration for offshore oil and gas drilling. They reached a settlement agreement over exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, which happens to be heavily prospected. They know that with oil drilling there is always the use of air guns, blasting compressed air every few seconds.  

  • The Animal Welfare Institute is another organization doing their part to regulate ocean noise. They are a partner of the Internation Ocean Noise Coalition with representatives on every continent. The AWI is working with the International Ocean Noise Coalition to address the problem.

Is it all Doom and Gloom for the World’s Oceans?

Cornell University marine bioacoustics expert, Christopher Clark,has spent much of his career listening to ‘the song of life’ below the waves.

Clark tells us that marine habitats are under assault from extreme noise pollution, but that this seemingly catastrophic pollution is preventable. The problem lies in talk and no action. Action needs to be about actually phasing out seismic activities and replacing them with less noisy technologies.

Full Circle – Back to being ‘The Silent World’

Noise pollution can be reversed and it must, after all the ocean isn’t our domain, we are land-based. As humans, we stand guilty of messing up our planet, and we need to clean up our act.

Everybody who cares for Planet Earth is waiting for the oceans to revert back to once again being known as ‘the silent world’.

References:

1. NCBI. Noise Effects on Mental Health: a review of literature. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25590550

2. Ocean. The Census of Marine Life. Available at https://ocean.si.edu/ecosystems/census-marine-life/census-marine-life-overview

3. Oxford Academic. BioSciece. A Review of Ocean Acidification and America’s Response.

Available at https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/60/10/819/231599

4. ResearchGate.Noise in the Sea and Its Impacts on Marine Organisms. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282437934_Noise_in_the_Sea_and_Its_Impacts_on_Marine_Organisms

5. BBC News. Whales in mass stranding on Western Australia beach. Available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-43509685

6. United Nations. Adopting Two Resolutions, General Assembly Speakers Stress That Healthy, Resilient Oceans, Seas Play Central Role in Achieving Sustainable Development Goals.

Available at https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/ga12103

7. DrowninginSound. Ocean Noise – a Growing Problem. Available at https://awionline.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/ml-drowninginsoundbrochure-101711.pdf

8. NRDC. Ocean Noise. Available at https://www.nrdc.org/issues/ocean-noise

9. Animal Welfare Institute. Ocean Noise. Available at https://awionline.org/content/ocean-noise

10. YaleEnvironment360. How Ocean Noise Pollution Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life. Available at https://e360.yale.edu/features/how_ocean_noise_pollution_wreaks_havoc_on_marine_life

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