NoiseTracker: a collaborative initiative that aims to tackle the invisible threat permeating our oceans

Understanding underwater noise and its impacts on marine life.

Do you remember playing Marco Polo as a child? For those of you who have never played before, the object of the game is to use call (“Marco”) and response (“Polo”) while blindfolded to locate and tag other players. Anyone who has ever played can relate to the challenge of trying to navigate and find people when sight is eliminated. Suddenly, that dog barking in the background or the truck driving by becomes a prominent noise that reduces your success in finding your targets. In a similar way, underwater noise interferes with the ability of marine mammals to detect, localize, and characterize objects.

Sound is critical for survival for many marine species as most of the ocean is shrouded in darkness. Light rarely penetrates below 200m of the ocean’s surface, but sound travels much farther–and nearly 4.5 times faster in water than in air. This makes it an excellent means for rapid information exchange over long distances. Cetaceans have, therefore, developed unique adaptations that rely on sound to enable them to find prey, detect predators, navigate, and communicate. Fish and aquatic invertebrates also use sound for basic life functioning, emitting sounds such as clicks, grunts, and snaps used to fend against predators or to attract mates. The advantages of using sound, however, have been jeopardized in more recent times as the ocean is becoming noisier.

Acoustic habitat

In the past century, human-generated underwater noise from ships and other vessels and activities such as seismic surveys, military exploration, shoreline construction, and recreation have increased greatly, becoming major contributors to underwater soundscapes. The impacts and responses of marine animals to these noises vary depending on sound intensity, frequency, duration of exposure, and other factors. With a projected increase in new shipping projects and expansions expected in the coming years, noise pollution has been identified as a significant conservation concern that can have detrimental consequences to marine life in both the short and long term. Many of the marine mammals that rely on sound, including at-risk species such as Southern and Northern Resident killer whales, are apex predators and serve as reliable indicators of overall ecosystem health.  

NoiseTracker

Interest in the underwater soundscape of coastal British Columbia is well established as governments, First Nations, industry, environmental non-profit organizations, and researchers have installed hydrophones in at least 30 underwater listening stations along the coast. Additional installations are in development, with two that will be operated by Raincoast. Many of these existing listening stations were installed with the primary purposes of detecting whales acoustically and studying their behaviour and habitat use; however, the data they gather can be used to monitor underwater noise levels as well.

NoiseTracker is a collaborative initiative that hopes to unite all existing hydrophone operators along the BC coast in a common effort to provide an easily accessible central platform for monitoring ocean noise. With an interactive and user-friendly website, we aim to build  an open resource for policy-makers, researchers, territorial stewards, and the general public alike, bringing new opportunities to learn and hopefully stimulate progress in underwater noise mitigation.

Interpreting acoustic data is challenging – especially when comparing between different hydrophone sites – as there are many factors that can affect sound pressure levels, including  field of view, bathymetry, temperature, salinity, and seafloor substrate. NoiseTracker‘s main strength will be to monitor noise trends at fixed locations rather than provide coast-wide noise comparisons.

Learn more about underwater noise and NoiseTracker.

Our goal with NoiseTracker is to better monitor and understand long term noise trends and identify where high levels of underwater noise and marine activity coincide to better inform and implement mitigation measures. It will allow environmental managers to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of any mitigation measures implemented – such as slow-down zones for whales – and determine whether further refinement is required. One of NoiseTracker’s priorities is to empower communities and provide local stewards with a tool that can be used to help monitor and protect coastal waters in their regions. 

Collaboration is fundamental to the success of NoiseTracker and, as such, our steering and technical committees currently have representatives from First Nations, NGOs, academia, government, and a number of engineering and technology companies. We are continually recruiting new voices who share our vision of an accessible, holistic monitoring platform to interpret the ocean soundscape and ultimately contribute to a quieter ocean for marine life.

Support our mobile lab, Tracker!

Our new mobile lab will enable the Healthy Waters Program to deliver capacity, learning, and training to watershed-based communities. We need your support to convert the vehicle and equip it with lab instrumentation. This will allow us to deliver insight into pollutants of concern in local watersheds, and contribute to solution-oriented practices that protect and restore fish habitat.

Sam Scott and Peter Ross standing in front of the future mobile lab, which is a grey sprinter van.