Sound argument

Orca whale pod off the coast of Vancouver island, Canada Orca whale pod off the coast of Vancouver island, Canada JuRitt
15 Oct
2015
Designating quiet marine areas could help protect sea ecosystems and broaden our understanding of them, research says

Among warnings of coral bleaching events, plastic gyres and oil spills the possible impacts of noise pollution caused by shipping traffic is not high on the list of marine priorities. In spite of the many studies identifying areas of concern, it can be difficult to oppose shipping routes seen as necessary in a globalised market.

However, a new study proposes quiet ‘opportunity areas’ such as Haida Gwaii off the coast of British Colombia, which could help researchers fully understand the impacts of sound pollution on marine ecosytems and how to protect them. It focused on large marine mammals such as elephant seals, steller sea lions, fin whales, humpback whales and common minke whales.

‘For these species, clearly chemical pollution, entanglement in debris and fishing gear and intended cullings are higher risks in some areas,’ says Christine Erbe, Director of the Marine Science Center at Curtin University and co-author of the study. ‘But in others, marine noise seems to be important and on the rise.’

Shipping routes red blackWorld shipping lanes (Image: Grolltech)

In the ocean, sound penetrates further than light, travelling hundreds of kilometres versus tens of metres. It is known to be the only mode of communication that allows for interactions over greater distances than a few body lengths. Dr Rob Williams, conservation scientist and lead author of the research, says ‘for many species of whales, dolphins and porpoise, sound as is as important as vision is to humans’. While the full impact of human-caused noise is not yet known, scientists speculate that it can interfere with marine mammal communication, hunting behaviour and cause hearing loss.

‘Because sound travels much faster, further and at much less loss underwater than light does, marine animals have evolved a strong acoustic sense for sensing their environment and for communication,’ he says.

Shipping has increased by 300 per cent since 1992, allowing for a crescendo in the noise around ports and busy routes. The northern hemisphere is notoriously noisy, given the constant back and forth of goods between North America, Europe and Asia. Identifying areas in the northern hemisphere that are already quiet and keeping them that way may come at a lower economic cost than trying to reduce the noise of louder areas, the study says.

imageThese maps show opportunity sites for nine different marine species. The areas shown in red are places with high population count and low noise levels (Image: Hall, et al)

‘We tend to focus on problems in conservation biology,’ says Williams. ‘This was a fun study to work on, because we looked for opportunities to protect species by working with existing patterns in noise and animal distribution.’

Compared to many busy coastlines in the northern hemisphere, Canada still has pockets of what Williams calls ‘acoustic wilderness’, which he says should be considered a rich natural resource. The species-rich waters of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago on the north coast of British Columbia, is one example of an ideal opportunity area. As an area with high species diversity and low noise pollution, Haida Gwaii could be used as a noise-free control site to compare other noisier areas with.

In previous years, policy-makers have only considered ocean noise when acute, very loud sound sources are perceived to cause dramatic effects, such as whale strandings following military exercises involving naval sonar. ‘However, many jurisdictions, including Canada, the US and the EU, are now beginning to incorporate the chronic effects of lower-level noise from shipping and other human activities that have become ubiquitous in today’s increasingly industrialised oceans,’ says Williams. 

‘We must make every effort to protect quiet ocean regions now,’ says Dr. Christopher Clark from the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University, ‘before they grow too noisy from the din of our activities.’

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Oceans

A study of various fish populations has found dramatic reductions…

Geophoto

The seasonal changes of September promise much photographic potential for…

Oceans

Shipping traffic can increase lightning strikes, according to a pioneering…

Polar

New documentary travels to remote Antarctica to unpack the complex…

Oceans

The deaths of these majestic creatures had remained an unsolved…

Wildlife

Over a two-year period, a new species of plant or…

Wildlife

As part of New Zealand’s plan to cull millions of…

Oceans

A project to map the ocean floor is raising concerns…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Wildlife

Dismay as a Spanish baby dolphin becomes the latest victim…

Polar

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Oceans

The effect of plastics on the world’s oceans is posing…

Geophoto

Camera technology may have come a long way since the…

Energy

The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn…

Wildlife

Despite their high profiles, most of the world’s national animal…

Oceans

Asian countries are pledging to reduce the amount of land-based…

Geophoto

There’s a world of visual wonder beneath the waves but…

Energy

A short, summer eclipse in America has solar power generators…

Climate

A dramatic increase in dust storms across the western United…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…