An echosounder view on the potential effects of impulsive noise pollution on pelagic fish around windfarms in the North Sea

Kok, Annebelle C.M.; Bruil, Lisa; Bergès, B.J.P.; Sakinan, Serdar; Debusschere, Elisabeth; Reubens, Jan; Haan, Dick de; Norro, Alain; Slabbekoorn, Hans


Anthropogenic noise in the oceans is disturbing marine life. Among other groups, pelagic fish are likely to be affected by sound from human activities, but so far have received relatively little attention. Offshore wind farms have become numerous and will become even more abundant in the next decades. Wind farms can be interesting to pelagic fish due to food abundance or fisheries restrictions. At the same time, construction of wind farms involves high levels of anthropogenic noise, likely disturbing and/or deterring pelagic fish. Here, we investigated whether bottom-moored echosounders are a suitable tool for studying the effects of impulsive – intermittent, high-intensity – anthropogenic noise on pelagic fish around wind farms and we explored the possible nature of their responses. Three different wind farms along the Dutch and Belgian coast were examined, one with exposure to the passing by of an experimental seismic survey with a full-scale airgun array, one with pile driving activity in an adjacent wind farm construction site and one control site without exposure. Two bottom-moored echosounders were placed in each wind farm and recorded fish presence and behaviour before, during and after the exposures. The echosounders were successful in detecting variation in the number of fish schools and their behaviour. During the seismic survey exposure there were significantly fewer, but more cohesive, schools than before, whereas during pile driving fish swam shallower with more cohesive schools. However, the types and magnitudes of response patterns were also observed at the control site with no impulsive sound exposure. We therefore stress the need for thorough replication beyond single case studies, before we can conclude that impulsive sounds, from either seismic surveys or pile driving, are a disturbing factor for pelagic fish in otherwise attractive habitat around wind farms.