New research examines impact of noise pollution on Irish marine life

Ocean noise levels estimated to be 10 times higher than they were a few decades ago

A new project off the coast of Baltimore, Co Cork, will examine whether rising noise pollution in Ireland’s oceans is having an impact on marine life.

After months of development, a 4m data-gathering buoy, weighing two tonnes, will be deployed 9km off the coast of Baltimore.

Stationed for the next 12 months, the buoy will use an underwater microphone to record whale species in real-time and train machine learning tools to identify the calls of different species.

The Smart Whale Sounds project, undertaken by the NGO Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) Ireland, aims to gain a greater understanding of what is happening on Ireland’s ocean floors. It will look to identify and classify the species in Irish waters and learn how noise pollution may be changing their habits.

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In the longer term, the research may help to develop an early warning system that would encourage ships to reduce their speed to reduce the risk of striking a whale.

Lead researcher, ecologist Emer Keaveney from ORCA, said increased levels of marine traffic from container ships and other boats has created a “significant noise pollution issue”.

She said estimates suggest ocean noise levels are at least 10 times higher today than they were a few decades ago.

“Sound pollution causes as much damage to marine life as overfishing, pollution and climate change and is believed to cause behavioural changes that interfere with the health and survival of the animals,” she added.

The south coast has been chosen for the study as it is one of the world’s most important foraging, resting and reproductive habitats for cetacean species, which include whales, dolphins, and porpoises, the researchers said. Ireland is home to 25 species of resident and migratory cetaceans, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of all mammals found in Ireland, and a third of all cetaceans found worldwide.

The project uses technology from Chinese telecommunications equipment company Huawei. The company’s Irish chief executive, Tony Yangxu, said the project will lead the way in using technology and data to inform how to manage protected marine areas.

The data gathered will also be used to create a marine wildlife detection and classification model which could potentially be applied to other projects around the world.

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan is an Irish Times reporter