Ocean noise pollution is killing animals and needs to stop, scientists say

A dolphin jumps out of the sea near Cancale
A dolphin jumps out of the sea, France, photo: Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Rumbling ships, hammering oil drills and seismic testings are disrupting marine animals’ ability to mate, feed and even evade predators, scientists warn.

Industrial noises can deafen or disorient whales, dolphins and other marine mammals that depend on sound to navigate, according to the study ‘The soundscape of the Anthropocene ocean‘, published in the journal Science.

Sea turtles, seabirds, seals, walruses and manatees are also harmed by these unnatural human-created ocean noises.

These noises and their impacts need more attention from scientists and policymakers, the study says. 

Even the cracking of glaciers breaking into polar oceans and the rattle of rain falling on the water’s surface can be heard deep under the sea, said lead author Carlos Duarte, a marine scientist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s a chronic problem that certainly weakens the animals all the way from individuals to populations,” Duarte said. “This is a growing problem, one that is global in scope.”

The international team of researchers called for a global regulatory framework for measuring and managing ocean noise.

Much of the human-caused noise should be easy to reduce, Duarte said. For example, measures such as building quieter ships and using drilling techniques that do not cause bubbles and water vibrations could cut noise pollution in half, he said.

Having the world use more renewable energy would also lessen the need to drill for oil and gas.

The benefits of ocean noise reduction could be huge for marine life, Duarte said, noting a resurgence in marine activity during April 2020 when shipping noise died down as countries went into lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

No more whale song
Humans have not only added noise to the ocean, but they have also eliminated natural sounds, the study found. Whaling, for example, removed millions of whales from the world’s oceans – along with much of their whale song.

And the chirp and chatter noises around coral reefs are growing quieter as more corals die from ocean warming, acidification and pollution.

Climate change has also changed the soundscape in parts of the ocean that are warming by changing the mix of animals living there, along with the noises they make.

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