Underwater noise affects penguins just like whales and dolphins

Noise protection strategies are lacking for nearly all marine life

Ein Pinguin vor einem Messgerät.Click to enlarge
A penguin from the joint research project
Source: Beaulieu / DMM

The world's oceans are becoming increasingly burdened by man-made noise. This noise can disturb or even harm marine animals. An international research project entitled "Hearing in penguins", which is funded by the German Environment Agency (UBA), shows that penguins, just like whales and seals, also hear and react to noise in the sea. It is the first time ever that the hearing curves of penguins have been plotted and show how well these animals hear in different frequency ranges. Whereas noise is already regulated for humans at the level of disturbance, such protection strategies are lacking for nearly all marine life. Dirk Messner, President of the German Environment Agency, said, "Underwater noise transcends all borders. We need a political solution for this at both EU and international level."

This German-Danish research project was the first ever to investigate the hearing ability of penguins. The first complete hearing curve of a penguin will be available soon. Initial results show that penguins are already startled by relatively quiet sounds and swim away from the sound source. Studies on penguins in the wild support these results. In the wild, the use of seismic airguns at a distance of 100 km caused the penguins under investigation to abandon a feeding area.

Loud sound can have a damaging effect on the hearing ability of animals and cause a shift in hearing thresholds, i.e. "hearing loss". Even if underwater sound does no harm to hearing, it can still be a disturbance and amounts to a negative effect. Low-frequency sound waves emitted by ships and some research equipment in particular may be perceived from far away and loudly in the sea. This can drive animals out of relevant habitats, alter behaviour or disrupt communication with fellow species and impair their biological fitness. Dirk Messner said, "Ships simply have to be designed to be as quiet as possible right from the start. The Blue Angel for eco-friendly ship design is a good starting point. But unfortunately, there is still little ambition to work toward award of this eco-label."

Underwater noise from pile driving or the use of seismic airguns can be up to 1,000 times louder than shipping noise. In most of the world, however, noise from shipping is the dominant source of noise in the world's oceans. Furthermore, the number of ships in the world continues to increase every year. The UN's Maritime Organization (IMO) published voluntary guidelines for reducing underwater noise back in 2014, recommending that noise emissions be minimised as early as the ship design stage. However, little progress has been made in reducing ship noise in merchant shipping since then.

In the Antarctic Ocean, penguins, whales and seals are protected by the Antarctic Treaty from disturbance by underwater sound and other man-made factors. As the German authority responsible for activities in the Antarctic, UBA assesses possible environmental impacts on protected species before granting permits for such activities.

Harbour porpoises – the only whale species native to Germany– are protected by a noise protection policy. For the Antarctic, UBA is committed to protecting the animals that live there by implementing a scheme based on the German protection scheme. It has therefore commissioned a research project that will run until 2023 to identify the necessary noise protection thresholds for the Antarctic.

Erklärfilm: Unterwasserlärm

Erklärfilm: Unterwasserlärm

Tiere im Meer sind auf Schall angewiesen, um sich zu orientieren, zu kommunizieren, Nahrung zu lokalisieren oder sich vor Feinden zu schützen. Menschgemachter Lärm verändert diesen Lebensraum und kann Tiere stören und verletzen. Der Erklärfilm „Unterwasserlärm“ veranschaulicht, welche Geräuschquellen es im Meer gibt und welche potentielle Gefahr sie darstellen.

Printer-friendly version
 Pinguie  Unterwasserlärm