Widely used marine seismic survey air gun operations negatively impact zooplankton

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, Article number: 0195 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0195
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Zooplankton underpin the health and productivity of global marine ecosystems. Here we present evidence that suggests seismic surveys cause significant mortality to zooplankton populations. Seismic surveys are used extensively to explore for petroleum resources using intense, low-frequency, acoustic impulse signals. Experimental air gun signal exposure decreased zooplankton abundance when compared with controls, as measured by sonar (~3–4 dB drop within 15–30 min) and net tows (median 64% decrease within 1 h), and caused a two- to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton. Impacts were observed out to the maximum 1.2 km range sampled, which was more than two orders of magnitude greater than the previously assumed impact range of 10 m. Although no adult krill were present, all larval krill were killed after air gun passage. There is a significant and unacknowledged potential for ocean ecosystem function and productivity to be negatively impacted by present seismic technology.

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The authors acknowledge the fieldwork contributions of IMAS staff, particularly M. Porteus, L. Watson, J. Beard, A. Pender, J. McAllister and A. Walters. M. Perry and D. Minchin of Curtin University prepared air gun and acoustic gear. This study was supported by University of Tasmania Research Enhancement Grant Scheme D0022818. R.A.W. acknowledges support from the Australian Research Council (Discovery project DP140101377). All research was conducted in accordance with University of Tasmania Animal Ethics Committee permit A13328. Fieldwork was conducted in accordance with Tasmania Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment permits 13011 and 14038. R. Towler (Midwater Assessment and Conservation Engineering, NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center) produced a modified package for reading the sonar raw data files into MATLAB.

Author information


  1. Centre for Marine Science and Technology, Curtin University, GPO Box U 1987, Perth 6845, Western Australia, Australia.

    • Robert D. McCauley
  2. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, Centre for Fisheries and Aquaculture, University Tasmania, Private Bag 49, Hobart, 7001 Tasmania, Australia.

    • Ryan D. Day
    • , Quinn P. Fitzgibbon
    • , Reg A. Watson
    •  & Jayson M. Semmens
  3. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, Centre for Ecology and Biodiversity, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, Private Bag 80, Hobart, 7001 Tasmania, Australia.

    • Kerrie M. Swadling


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R.D.M., R.D.D., Q.P.F. and J.M.S. conceived the study, with R.D.M. setting the initial study plan based on previous experiences. All authors but R.A.W. contributed to the final study design and field planning. R.D.M. and R.D.D. collected field data. K.M.S. and R.D.D. analysed plankton tows. R.D.M. analysed air gun and sonar data, and wrote the main manuscript. All authors reviewed and revised the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Robert D. McCauley or Jayson M. Semmens.

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–4; Supplementary Tables 1–6