Motorboat noise may literally scare fish to their deaths, new study says

Noise pollution can prove extremely dangerous for marine life especially to fish.

According to new research, motorboat noise doubles predator’s chances of catching fish. The noise from passing motorboats increases the stress levels in young coral reef fish which disrupts their ability to escape from predators and makes their survival difficult. Predators, on the other hand, receive an extra advantage and easily capture their prey.

“We found that when real boats were motoring near to young damselfish in open water, they became stressed and were six times less likely to startle to simulated predator attacks compared to fish tested without boats nearby,” said Dr Simpson, a senior lecturer in the University’s Biosciences department, whose work is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

“The combination of stress and poor responses to strikes by predators is why these fish became such easy prey,” said collaborator Dr Andy Radford, University of Bristol.

The team of scientists, which included Australian and Canadian researchers specialising in predator–prey interactions and bioacousticians from the University of Bristol, combined laboratory and field experiments, using playbacks and real boat noise, to test the impact of motorboat noise on survival of young Ambon damselfish during encounters with their natural predator the dusky dottyback.

Rather than being despondent, the team is optimistic about the possibilities for management of noise and its potential impact. “If you go to the Great Barrier Reef, there is a lot of noise from motorboats in some places. But unlike many pollutants we can more easily control noise. We can choose when and where we make it, and with new technologies, we can make less noise. For example, we could create marine quiet zones or buffer zones, and avoid known sensitive areas or times of year when juveniles are abundant,” said Dr Simpson.

Managing local environmental stressors such as noise is an essential first step in protecting the marine environment. “You might argue that climate change is a bigger threat to reef life, but if we can reduce the effect of local noise pollution we build greater resilience in reef communities to looming threats such as global warming and ocean acidification,” said collaborator Dr Mark Meekan, Australian Institute of Marine Science.

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