Vessel noise cuts down communication space for vocalizing fish and marine mammals

Rosalyn L. Putland, Nathan D. Merchant, Adrian Farcas, Craig A. Radford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

86 Scopus citations


Anthropogenic noise across the world's oceans threatens the ability of vocalizing marine species to communicate. Some species vocalize at key life stages or whilst foraging, and disruption to the acoustic habitat at these times could lead to adverse consequences at the population level. To investigate the risk of these impacts, we investigated the effect of vessel noise on the communication space of the Bryde's whale Balaenoptera edeni, an endangered species which vocalizes at low frequencies, and bigeye Pempheris adspersa, a nocturnal fish species which uses contact calls to maintain group cohesion while foraging. By combining long-term acoustic monitoring data with AIS vessel-tracking data and acoustic propagation modelling, the impact of vessel noise on their communication space was determined. Routine vessel passages cut down communication space by up to 61.5% for bigeyes and 87.4% for Bryde's whales. This influence of vessel noise on communication space exceeded natural variability for between 3.9 and 18.9% of the monitoring period. Additionally, during the closest point of approach of a large commercial vessel, <10 km from the listening station, the communication space of both species was reduced by a maximum of 99% compared to the ambient soundscape. These results suggest that vessel noise reduces communication space beyond the evolutionary context of these species and may have chronic effects on these populations. To combat this risk, we propose the application or extension of ship speed restrictions in ecologically significant areas, since our results indicate a reduction in sound source levels for vessels transiting at lower speeds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1708-1721
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Many thanks to Kordia Limited (curators for Maritime NZ) for providing the AIS data. Bathymetry data were kindly provided by Land Information New Zealand on 11th November 2016 and licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. CAR is a Rutherford Discovery Fellow funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand (RDF-UOA1302).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • Anthropogenic noise
  • Automatic Identification System
  • Balaenoptera edeni
  • Bryde's whale
  • Pempheris adspersa
  • acoustics
  • bigeye
  • communication space


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