30 June 1999

Sea life is troubled by noise

According to new research, the noise levels in the supposedly tranquil deep sea have reached such high levels that sea creatures are changing their migration and breeding grounds. This is particularly true for animals that rely upon sound for navigation.

The sound of supertankers, oil exploration and military sonar equipment scrambles the communications systems of sea life in dark waters.

Mammals such as whales and dolphins appear to use their hearing much as humans use sight - to find food and mates, to guard their young and to avoid predators. Now scientists fear man-made noise may harm them.

Whales sometimes change direction during migration to avoid noise and have been known to abandon traditional breeding grounds.

"We're playing Russian roulette with our oceans, and we can't afford to do that," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defence Council, the environmental group responsible for the report.

The study said that underwater noise could alter ocean habitats. It calls for a harder look at how noise affects sea creatures as well as stiffer regulations to protect them.

Christopher Clark, a Cornell University bioacoustics expert, said that in the waters around islands off Los Angeles and California there was "an acoustics traffic jam. You'd be appalled."

Roger Gentry, acoustics team co-ordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees most marine life in US waters, said: "It is a serious problem. The problem is, we don't know how serious it is."