Underwater noise pollution is threatening our marine life: it is time to act.

Marine species invasion

How Passive Acoustic Monitoring Systems can help tackle this major challenge – safeguarding our environment and the maritime economy.

Awareness of the threats posed by marine pollution have increased markedly in recent years, particularly the global environmental challenges from plastic waste. However, there is now a sizeable body of research evidence pointing to another major risk to our planet: underwater noise pollution, or anthropogenic noise.

As humans we rely on sound to give us an understanding of our environment, helping to keep us safe. Noise informs our behavior in many ways – and it is no different to other species we share our planet with. The majority of marine mammals and fish are also extremely sensitive to sound. Mammals such as whales and dolphins rely on sound to find their way in the oceans, unite with their family group and young – and be aware of the dangers of predators. Many species of fish similarly hear well, producing sounds to fight over food sources, territory or when attacked by predators[1]. Hearing is critical therefore for marine life; for navigation, communication and sourcing food.

[1] https://www.aaas.org/noise-pollution-also-threatens-fish

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Why is underwater noise pollution a problem for marine life?

Our oceans are changing as increasing noise pollution impacts upon how marine mammals and fish live and breed, threatening the underwater ecosystem. Sound travels faster in water than in the air, accentuating the potential impact of noise pollution[1].

Sonar from military ships to locate submarines; fishing boats, shipping traffic, seismic surveys, oil drilling, pile driving for offshore rigs and wind farms, even low flying aircraft. All of these activities contribute towards increasing noise pollution underwater in our seas and oceans, producing what scientists refer to as anthropogenically generated sounds[2].

The consequences of noise pollution on marine life are significant.

Human generated noises disrupt behavior of marine mammals and fish, impact physiology, affect reproduction and result in increased mortality[3]. Research indicates that noise pollution has deafened fish. This can reduce catch rates, cause stress responses in fish together with affecting their search for suitable sea habitats[4]. It is not only mammals and fish though; invertebrates such as lobster, crab, and shrimp also are susceptible to noise pollution[5].

The effects on whales and dolphins are also considerable.

Military activity such as naval sonar maneuvers can result in the stranding of whales and dolphins as well as lead to internal injuries on their brains and organs. Noise increases stress, and acoustic noise impacts on an animals’ immune system, resulting in illness and reduced life expectancy.

The problems created by underwater noise pollution therefore are substantial on a variety of species. It is now time to act and reduce the impact on marine life: and understanding how we as humans can do this in specific sectors using monitoring systems powered by AI technology, algorithms and Big Data is key.

[1] https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aba4658

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://time.com/5936110/underwater-noise-pollution-report/

[4] https://awionline.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/Weilgart_Biodiversity_2008-1238105851-10133.pdf

[5] Ibid.

Assessing the effects of underwater noise pollution in specific areas

Tackling the problem of underwater noise pollution needs to target a range of different sectors; in this article, we will focus on three:

  • Marine protected areas (MPAs)
  • Shipping
  • Offshore wind farms (OWFs)

In each of these areas, an important first stage is to prepare an environmental impact assessment (EIA)[1]. Using a workflow to assess underwater noise pollution, the EIA process can identify the acoustically sensitive species and noise exposure criteria; identify the noise sources and input for data modelling; and assess risks and cumulative impacts. Further on in this article, we will look at how real-time data environmental monitoring systems can play a crucial role in this area.

Let us now consider the three sectors in turn:

[1] https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2664.13161

Marine protected areas (MPAs)​

Globally there are some 15,000 marine protected areas safeguarding more than 27 million square kilometers – almost 10.6 million square miles of ocean[1]. MPAs play a key role in conserving nature (fauna, flora, ecosystems) as well as promoting the sustainable development of economic activities, for example fishing and responsible tourism. There are though various levels of protection; some MPAs are fully protected, where no plants or animals can be harmed; others are partially protected.

An Australian study into the effects of underwater noise on marine life considered the impacts of seismic testing and other man-made disturbances in marine protected areas, for example on whales, dolphins and porpoises[2]. The oil and gas industry use seismic testing to search for new energy reserves, blasting the seafloor with high-powered air guns.

The study concluded that seismic testing risked driving the marine mammals away from their natural habitat. The impacts were considerable: a reduction in their ability to feed, stress and disorientation and limiting their communication abilities by masking calls within their social group. Furthermore, seismic testing within a close proximity had the potential to cause temporary or permanent hearing damage, resulting in strandings or even death.

In the United States, similar research estimated that seismic proposals under consideration could cause more than 31 million instances of harm to marine mammals in the Gulf and 13.5 million harmful interactions with marine mammals in the Atlantic, killing or injuring 138,000 dolphins and whales. Furthermore, this included nine endangered North Atlantic Right whales, whose calving grounds are off Florida’s coast[3].

[1] https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2020/07/07/how-much-of-the-ocean-is-really-protected

[2] https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2015/09/the-effects-of-underwater-noise-on-marine-life

[3] https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/seismic_blasting/

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Shipping is a major cause of underwater noise pollution due to the increasing number and size of vessels. For example research found that in parts of the world underwater ambient noise increased by about 3.3 dB per decade between 1950 and 2007. Moreover, this acceleration is increasing; doubling every 10 years as commercial fleets expand and grow in capacity.[1]

In January 2021, a comprehensive report identified actions that ports could undertake to reduce underwater noise emissions from commercial shipping. The report suggested changes in hull, propeller and vessel engine design, together with operational measures to reduce speed, amend individual routes and encourage greater travelling in convoys[2].

[1] Frisk, G., 2012. Noiseonomics: The relationship between ambient noise levels in the sea and global economic trends. Scientific reports 2: 437.

[2] https://i3.cnrs.fr/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Ports-can-reduce-underwater-L.-Recuero-Virto-H.-Dumez-C.-Romero-D.-Bailly.pdf

Offshore wind farms (OWFs)

The development of offshore wind farms is growing exponentially – and by 2050 offshore wind is expected to overtake the oil and gas sector within the world’s energy markets reducing reliance on fossil fuels[1].

However, it is crucial to understand the environmental impacts for each project, particularly as areas chosen for offshore wind farms often correspond with essential fisheries habitats.

Offshore wind farms have an estimated lifespan of 40 – 50 years, commencing from the initial site surveys through to construction. Whilst industry wide studies show that underwater noise generated from individual wind turbines is low compared to the noise radiated from cargo ships, the cumulative contribution to the soundscape from multiple turbines within a wind farm is potentially significant. In addition, the contribution from wind turbines is likely to be substantial in areas with low natural ambient noise and low levels of ship traffic. The collective acoustic impact on various species of fish and marine mammals requires consideration[2].

[1] https://www.offshore-energy.biz/dnv-expects-oil-gas-capex-to-shrink-and-offshore-wind-growth-to-trigger-race-for-ocean-space/

[2] https://asa.scitation.org/doi/10.1121/10.0002453

Passive acoustic monitoring systems to tackle underwater noise pollution

Passive acoustic monitoring is the surveying and monitoring of wildlife and environments using acoustic sensors. It enables organizations to gather important data on underwater areas in real-time.

Sinay is a French company that specializes in digitally applied solutions for the maritime sector. The Sinay Hub is a comprehensive environmental monitoring system for ports, shipping businesses and other maritime organizations. Comprising different modules, the Sinay Hub brings together in one place all the data organizations need, providing real-time situational awareness for air quality, water quality and other environmental measures including underwater acoustics.

Using Sinay’s Underwater Acoustics Module organizations can monitor and predict harmful underwater noise pollution to reduce the acoustic levels within safe parameters. The system allows for the detection of mammals present underwater, issuing alerts to aid the decision-making process.

Please get in touch if you would like to know more or take advantage of our free beta test.

Frequently Asked Questions About: UNDERWATER NOISE​

Yes, there is noise pollution in the ocean which severely threatens marine life such as whales and dolphins. Just as humans are sensitive to noise, so are underwater mammals. Plus, mammals like cetaceans use sound as we use our eyes; therefore, underwater noise pollution is “blinding” for species likes whales 

Underwater noise is the sound in the ocean caused by human activity that prevents marine animals from hearing natural ocean noises.  

Human activities such as shipping, port activity, military sonar, dredging, construction, and seabed excavation cause underwater noise in our oceans. 

Underwater noise pollution harms marine animals, preventing them from hearing natural underwater noises. Marine animals, like cetaceans, heavily rely on noises to communicate; therefore, noise pollution from a ship or vessel, for example, endangers these species from communicating.  

Shipping, military sonar and defense activities, research activities, and recreational activities  

Underwater noise is bad because it harms marine animals by preventing them from hearing natural ocean noises, pushing them away from their natural habitat, and even changing their migration patterns. This in turn impacts the ocean environment and natural ecosystem. 

Underwater noise pollution can be prevented with innovative technologies and Artificial Intelligence, such as the Sea Life Module on the Sinay IT platform, the Sinay Hub.  

We reduce underwater noise by detecting the source and reducing the impact of humancaused noise pollution. For example, the path of a ship can be redirected to avoid populated marine animal areas.  

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