A new review of the scientific literature confirms that anthropogenic noise is becoming unbearable for undersea life.
Although clown fish are conceived on coral reefs, they spend the first part of their lives as larvae drifting in the open ocean. The fish are not yet orange, striped or even capable of swimming. They are still plankton, a term that comes from the Greek word for “wanderer,” and wander they do, drifting at the mercy of the currents in an oceanic rumspringa.
When the baby clown fish grow big enough to swim against the tide, they high-tail it home. The fish can’t see the reef, but they can hear its snapping, grunting, gurgling, popping and croaking. These noises make up the soundscape of a healthy reef, and larval fish rely on these soundscapes to find their way back to the reefs, where they will spend the rest of their lives — that is, if they can hear them.
But humans — and their ships, seismic surveys, air guns, pile drivers, dynamite fishing, drilling platforms, speedboats and even surfing — have made the ocean an unbearably noisy place for marine life, according to a sweeping review of the prevalence and intensity of the impacts of anthropogenic ocean noise published on Thursday in the journal Science. The paper, a collaboration among 25 authors from across the globe and various fields of marine acoustics, is the largest synthesis of evidence on the effects of oceanic noise pollution.
“They hit the nail on the head,” said Kerri Seger, a senior scientist at Applied Ocean Sciences who was not involved with the research. “By the third page, I was like, ‘I’m going to send this to my students.’”
Anthropogenic noise often drowns out the natural soundscapes, putting marine life under immense stress. In the case of baby clown fish, the noise can even doom them to wander the seas without direction, unable to find their way home.
“The cycle is broken,” said Carlos Duarte, a marine ecologist at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and the lead author on the paper. “The soundtrack of home is now hard to hear, and in many cases has disappeared.”