Aquatic animals (invertebrates, fishes, and marine mammals) are encountering an increasing array of underwater anthropogenic noises that can disrupt and even harm ecosystems as well as the lives of individuals and populations. Sources of anthropogenic noise include, but are not limited to, shipping, offshore exploration and production for fossil fuels, and the construction and operation of wind farms. Because of the continuing increase in anthropogenic noise, research on its potential effects on aquatic animals has intensified over the past two decades. However, a major under-explored issue is that noise is only one type of anthropogenic pressure acting (often simultaneously) on animals. Indeed, multiple simultaneous anthropogenic pressures are likely to affect how aquatic animals respond to each of the individual stimuli. Moreover, animal responses may be very different in the presence of multiple pressures as compared to when there is only a single anthropogenic source. We suggest refocusing of aquatic noise so that research prioritizes studies that deal with the interaction of noise with other anthropogenic pressures on aquatic life. At the same time, we call for an acceleration of studies providing baseline data for cumulative risk studies, such as monitoring of ambient noise around the globe.

The understanding of anthropogenic underwater noise and its potential impacts on some aquatic animals (i.e., invertebrates, fishes, marine mammals) has come a long way in the past few decades (e.g., Popper and Hawkins, 2016; Popper , 2024). A seminal review of the various noise sources and effects from masking to injury, covering marine mammals, was undertaken by Richardson (1995). This, and extensive works that followed, informed later development of noise criteria for marine mammals (Southall , 2007; Southall , 2019). More recently, attention has been drawn to potential impacts of aquatic noise on fishes (e.g., Popper and Hawkins, 2012, 2016), leading to the development of interim noise criteria for this taxon (Popper , 2014). Even more recently, concern has arisen that many marine invertebrates, and possibly even marine plants, could also potentially be affected by anthropogenic noise (André , 2011; Hawkins , 2015; Hawkins and Popper, 2016; Thode, 2019; Solé , 2021), but there have yet been no attempts to set any criteria for these organisms.

As a result of work to date, there is an emerging picture of the effects of anthropogenic underwater noise on aquatic life. Effects in this context are defined as changes from a prior state that is called the “baseline” condition (Popper , 2020 [see Sec. I A for “definitions” of terms as used in this paper]). Such changes can manifest as masking, behavioral response, hearing impairment, and physical and physiological effects (as defined by Hawkins and Popper, 2016).

One issue, however, is that the research on the effects of anthropogenic noise has clearly been leaning towards marine mammals because of their charismatic nature and the high protection status in many regions of the world (see Popper , 2020; Scholik-Schlomer , 2023). In contrast, there have been considerably fewer studies on noise affecting other animal trophic levels, such as fishes and aquatic invertebrates, despite their making up well over 99% of all aquatic animal life and their being the primary protein source for close to 17% of the human population (e.g., Boyd , 2022).

Effects of noise on aquatic animals can lead to negative consequences for the fitness of individuals and/or populations of aquatic life. Such “biologically significant” changes are defined as “impacts” [Popper , 2020 (see Sec. I A)]. Yet, even after decades of research on anthropogenic underwater noise, information on impacts of noise on aquatic animals is sparse. This lack of knowledge on population-level changes due to noise exposure is an important issue concerning marine environmental management (see, for example, Popper , 2020). We believe that one reason why progress on understanding noise impacts has been slow is related to a too narrow focus since most investigators and regulators of aquatic noise tend to look at noise in isolation from other potential stimuli. Instead, we argue here that investigators and regulators must see the “big picture” and learn from important concepts already applied in ecology (e.g., Tyack , 2022).

Several terms used in this paper are often used in different ways by various investigators (see, e.g., Hawkins , 2020). Thus, definitions are invaluable in this paper (and other similar papers) to ensure that all readers understand how the authors use terms that are not defined in International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or American National Standards Institute (ANSI) documents. Thus, to ensure clarity of meaning in this paper, we provide a list of critical definitions as to how we use terms. Furthermore, there is an ongoing debate among scientists, regulators, and other stakeholders about the definition of many of the most basic terms in our field of science, which are “sound” and “noise.”

For clarity of understanding, and within this paper, we apply the definitions of the ISO where such definitions are available. However, as these are very technical, we attempt here a few words of explanation. Accordingly, the term “sound” is used to refer to the acoustic energy radiated from a vibrating object, with no reference to its function or potential effect. “Noise” is sound that is not a signal of biological value and thus has, biologically speaking, no adaptive value or biological meaning for the receiver, and may either be neutral or may have adverse effects (Southall, 2018; Thomsen , 2021).

  • Cumulative risks: The combined risk from aggregate exposures to one or multiple pressures (Tyack , 2022).

  • Effects: Changes caused by noise exposure that are a departure from a prior state, condition, or situation, which is called the “baseline” condition (Popper , 2020).

  • Impacts: Biologically significant effects that reflect a change whose direction, magnitude, and/or duration is sufficient to have consequences for the fitness of individual marine life or populations of marine life (Popper , 2020).

  • Noise: A time-varying electric current, voltage, sound pressure, sound particle displacement, or other field quantity, except for the signal or signals (ISO, 2017).

  • Pressures: Factors that interfere with the normal functioning of a system (Auerbach, 1981).

  • Signal: Sound of interest (ISO, 2017).

  • Sound: Alteration in pressure, stress, or material displacement propagated via the action of elastic stresses in an elastic medium and that involves local compression and expansion of the medium, or the superposition of such propagated alterations (ISO, 2017).

Popper (2020) argued that the best approach to dealing with anthropogenic noise is to “take the animals perspective” when thinking about and mitigating noise impacts. This means that every approach to mitigation should be investigated against its likely or potential effectiveness before it is applied.

Thus, in this paper we follow the animal perspective, as suggested by Popper (2020), and then expand on it by arguing that one cannot understand the biologically significant impacts of noise on individuals and populations of aquatic animals by looking at this one anthropogenic pressure in isolation. Instead, we must consider anthropogenic noise as being part of the ensemble of pressures acting on the receivers. Following from this idea, we argue that there is a need to focus research much more on interaction of noise with other anthropogenic pressures. We point out that this is an opinion piece, and as such we do not provide new data. Rather, our paper is intended to stimulate discussion on multiple anthropogenic pressures. We emphasis that we do not advocate against single anthropogenic pressure studies. Yet/however, for the full understanding of impacts, a multi-pressure approach is necessary.

Behavioral biology has long established that animals are subjected to numerous external stimuli simultaneously or sequentially, and that these stimuli cumulatively influence behavior. To illustrate using but two of what could be innumerable examples, consider the classic research on frillfin gobies (Bathygobious soporator). In this study, Tavolga (1956) demonstrated that reproductive behavior in this fish requires a combination of visual, acoustic, and chemical cues; the absence of any of these components halts reproduction. Additionally, Partan and Marler (1999) clearly demonstrated that multiple stimuli are often concurrently involved in communication, particularly in highly social, group-living animals such as primates.

Ecological studies have provided more details on how this apparent interaction of environmental stimuli works at the receiver. Studies found that the effect of two or more pressures is primarily “non-additive.” This implies that the cumulative impact of multiple pressures differs from what would be anticipated based on the individual effects of each pressure. Thus, the combined impact can be either “synergistic” or “antagonistic,” depending on whether the impact exceeds or falls below expectations (Orr , 2020). This phenomenon is particularly evident in the marine environment, where a comprehensive review of cumulative studies revealed that 84% of investigations demonstrated non-additive effects (Crain , 2008). For example, at higher temperatures, increased metabolic activity exacerbates the impacts of salinity on zooplankton of the genus Cladocera (Martínez-Megías and Rico, 2022). Conversely, in the freshwater amphipod Gammarus fossarum, pressures interact antagonistically at the physiological level, as seen where the effect induced by fine sediment is compensated for by reduced flow velocity (Brasseur , 2022).

Based on the findings like those described above, we suggest that the research on effects of noise on aquatic animals undertake a conceptual shift. Rather than solely focusing on noise effects alone, a more comprehensive perspective is warranted that recognizes the diverse array of pressures that simultaneously impact aquatic animals, such as (but certainly not limited to) temperature changes, fishing (in a variety of forms from artisanal to pelagic high bycatch), various types of marine pollution, and shipping (Halpern , 2015; Halpern , 2019). Indeed, the body of scientific evidence indicates that in “real life,” the responses to combined pressures will be different than would be seen for each pressure separately. Thus, it becomes clear that in studying effects of anthropogenic pressures on aquatic animals, we should follow a methodology akin to impact studies on terrestrial species, which frequently contextualize noise within the spectrum of potential anthropogenic pressures an individual or population might encounter [e.g., light, chemicals, sound (EPA, 2003; Pedersen, 2015)].

A few reviews (e.g., Wright , 2007; Simmonds, 2018) and frameworks (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017) have addressed underwater noise in the context of other anthropogenic pressures, and there are a small number of empirical studies investigating noise alongside other anthropogenic pressures (e.g., Thomsen , 2011; Costa, 2012; Domit , 2022; Pirotta , 2018b). However, in general, these are exceptions to the general approach taken in this research area, and none of the reviews in concept or empirical studies considered fishes or aquatic invertebrates.

Indeed, most aquatic noise studies have looked at effects of underwater noise in isolation and have not considered multiple anthropogenic pressures. If one examines the scientific programs of the two most recent conferences on anthropogenic underwater noise, Oceannoise2023 (https://2023.oceanoise.com) and the Sixth Internal Conference on the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life (Popper and Hawkins, 2022; Scholik-Schlomer , 2023), only 2 of the 77 and 79 plenary talks, respectively, dealt with cumulative risks.

What follows from this is that research on the effects of noise on aquatic animals should be considered within the potential breadth of anthropogenic pressures to which animals may be exposed. Moreover, it is important to recognize that such exposure is often likely to be simultaneous. Thus, the issue we raise is that while an aquatic animal may not be affected by a single low-level noise (e.g., boat noise), that noise, in combination with another anthropogenic pressure such as chemical pollution or light pollution, may result in significant effects, and/or the responses an animal makes to anthropogenic noise could be rather different than the responses when several different anthropogenic pressures are present at the same time (Segner , 2014).

Such a focus on multiple pressures, including noise, is of course challenging since there are few data on ambient noise trends available for aquatic animals. In this context, it is critical to point out that anthropogenic underwater noise has been largely excluded from most cumulative studies (see Halpern , 2015; Halpern , 2019; Korpinen and Andersen, 2016; Simeoni , 2023). This omission is attributed to a global scarcity of information on baseline and trends of ambient underwater noise, thereby hindering the provision of meaningful inputs for risk assessments. Consequently, we contend that a high priority should be placed on collecting appropriate baseline data to provide solid input into cumulative risk studies.

With this paper, we promote the view that underwater noise impacts are considered as part of the array of diverse pressures that act on aquatic life. Thus, it is necessary to refocus aquatic noise in the direction that investigators and regulators prioritize impact studies that consider the interaction of noise with other anthropogenic pressures. This also means that investigators and regulators focus on studies that can provide a meaningful baseline for cumulative anthropogenic pressure assessments: for example, ambient noise baseline investigations all around the globe.

We appreciate there are initiatives that already work towards these aims. The Population Consequences of Acoustic Disturbance (PCAD) model (National Research Council, 2005) has been expanded to also including other anthropogenic pressures that can impact behavior of aquatic animals in addition to noise, such as the Population Consequences of Disturbance (PCoD) model (Pirotta , 2018a). At least hypothetically, it will then be possible to assess the interaction of different anthropogenic pressures (see also review in National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). Building on PCoD, a framework for assessing cumulative pressures on wildlife including marine species has been conceptualized (Tyack , 2022). One problem, however, is that while PCAD models have been developed for marine mammals, there has been little progress so far in other taxa (for fishes, see Slabbekoorn , 2019).

Concerning baseline data, the European Union (EU) has funded a variety of large scale joint monitoring projects investigating impulsive and continuous sound [e.g., BIAS, JONAS, JOMOPANS, Quiet Med (overview in Merchant , 2022)]. Results of such studies could feed into future cumulative assessment of the seas. Monitoring studies should be expanded to other regions to provide a better—worldwide—coverage.

We reiterate that we do not argue against further studies putting an emphasis on effects related to noise, from masking to injury. Those studies remain essential and have been extensively explored in the field of underwater noise (United Nations, 2018). Our goal with this paper is to advocate for the consideration of other topics that are equally, if not more, important.

We also raise the issue that, even today, most studies that have been done and that are continuing tend to focus on marine mammals. Considering that fishes and aquatic invertebrates make up most of the aquatic animal biomass as well as the total number of aquatic species and are so critical for humans as food and for the ecosystems, it is imperative that research on these animals is increased substantially.

The authors have no conflicts to disclose.

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analyzed in this study.

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