School of Engineering


DEFRA Sound Waves, Effects of underwater noise on coastal fish and crustaceans behavioural responses in the field.

Provide an evidence-based tool to forecast effects of anthropogenic noise on marine animals

Underwater sound is an important feature for marine animals. Several species use sound to communicate for reproduction, feeding and navigation over a wide range of frequencies. Human activities add sounds in the aquatic environment. These activities include recreational and commercial navigation, off-shore exploration and developments and fisheries. Much of the technology contributing to ocean noise is new and in many cases the sounds generated are very different to natural sounds, both in their amplitudes and characteristics. The SoundWaves Research Consortium has been formed with the specific intention of concentrating recognised UK expertise on the impact of man made underwater noise into a single team.The consortium aims to understand how individuals and populations respond to changing environments in relation to increasing anthropogenic noise levels.

What is the problem?

UK’s marine environment provides habitat for a rich marine community.  We have the obligation to ensure its conservation and uses.  Underwater noise in the sea is increasing.  Shipping, offshore construction, dredging, seismic surveying for gas and oil and other activities are leading to higher levels of ambient noise.  The effects of this additional noise upon marine life are poorly understood.  At one extreme, the high level impulsive sounds from pile driving may kill or injure animals.  Other sounds may result in animals leaving a preferred area.  Sustained noise may affect the ability of animals to detect their own calls, or the sounds of predators or prey.  To protect and ensure the continuing presence of a rich diversity of fauna in our territorial seas research is needed on the potentially adverse effects of underwater sound upon marine fauna This project will address this need and help ensure that the ecological status of our seas is not impaired by our noisy activities.

What are the aims of this project?

The overarching aim of this project is to provide an evidence-based tool to forecast effects of anthropogenic noise on marine animals. It will use state-of-the-the-art methods and a range of expertise within a multidisciplinary framework. The project is intended to achieve this aim by meeting the following five objectives:

Which policy areas will the research inform?

Under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive member states are required to develop strategies to achieve good environmental status of marine waters.  This research will assist the UK in developing a strategy for ensuring that the pressure of noise-making activities is kept within levels compatible with the achievement of good environmental status.  The research will also assist in supporting Marine Planning (informing licensing applications) in UK’s territorial seas and estuaries.

What are the results from the project and how will they be used?

The research proposed in this study addresses shortcomings in present knowledge, which will allow DEFRA to make informed decisions in the field of underwater acoustics and effects on marine biota and ecosystems. Specifically the outputs of this programme will generate the experimental data necessary to forecast direct effects on a number of important UK fish species such as herring (Clupea harengus), bib (Trisopterus luscus) or dab (Limanda limanda), and crustaceans including the edible crab (Cancer pagurus) or the European lobster (Homarus gammarus) whose precise sensitivity to anthropogenic underwater noise is the subject of current preliminary investigation. Activities being conducted as part of this project include:

These deliverables will ensure that concern over the impact of underwater noise upon marine life is integrated properly into the different policies, agreements and legislative measures which moderate the effects of our activities upon the marine environment. Observing the impact of sounds on pelagic fish in the sea by means of sonar. Techniques have been developed for observing the behaviour of schools of fish in mid water by means of echo sounders and side-scan sonar.  Methods have been developed for presenting sounds to the schools, monitoring the sound levels and observing the effects. Observations have been made on daily and seasonal changes in the behaviour of the schools and experiments have begun to examine the effects of sound presentation upon the schools.  Responses of the fish schools to sounds have been variable.  Strong responses to pile driving were observed in one instance, the fish diving and spreading out and the school breaking up.  In other instances there has been no response.  The reasons for these differences are being investigated.

Ilaria SpigaPhD student: