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Widely used marine seismic survey air gun operations negatively impact zooplankton


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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Figure 1: Potential undiscovered oil deposits worldwide and seismic survey scales.
Figure 2: Location of experimental site in southern Tasmania.
Figure 3: Zooplankton vital staining images, and ratios of zooplankton abundance and dead to total plankton counted.
Figure 4: S v after Day 1 air gun exposure.
Figure 5: Quantification of S v hole averaged within 10–12.5 m depth range.


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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding authors

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

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Figures 1–4; Supplementary Tables 1–6 (PDF 708 kb)

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McCauley, R., Day, R., Swadling, K. et al. Widely used marine seismic survey air gun operations negatively impact zooplankton. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0195 (2017).

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