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Brazilian Journal of Oceanography

Print version ISSN 1679-8759On-line version ISSN 1982-436X

Braz. j. oceanogr. vol.54 no.4 São Paulo Oct./Dec. 2006 



The effect of exposure to seismic prospecting on coral reef fishes



Walter A. BoegerI,II,*; Marcio R. PieI,II; Antonio OstrenskyII,III; Marcelo F. CardosoII,III

IUniversidade Federal do Paraná – Departamento de Zoologia
IIGrupo Integrado de Aqüicultura e Estudos Ambientais
IIIDepartamento de Zootecnia (Caixa Postal 19073, 81531–990, Curitiba, PR, Brazil)



Effective management of marine environments requires an understanding of how natural communities are affected by anthropogenic perturbations. A potentially severe stress to these environments is the seismic prospecting of hydrocarbon deposits (Gausland, 2003). This method is based on the production of high intensity sound pulses, which are reflected by the ocean floor and recorded using very sensitive hydrophones. After being processed, these signals are used by researchers to generate a wealth of information about the topography of the ocean floor and its underlying geological formations. Given that the use of air guns is currently the most important method of seismic prospecting (Wardle et al., 2001; Gausland, 2003), several studies have investigated the environmental impact of the use of air guns, particularly on shrimp fisheries (Andriguetto–Filho et al.,2005), marine turtles (McCauley et al., 2000), and mammals (Richardson et al., 1986; Au et al., 1997; Richardson & Wursig, 1997; Goold & Fish, 1998; Gordon et al., 1998; McCauley, 1998; Schlundt et al., 2000; McCauley & Duncan, 2001). Relatively few studies have been conducted on fish, focusing mostly on how seismic prospecting affects fish abundance (e.g. Dalen & Knutsen, 1987; Skalski et al., 1992; Pickett et al., 1994; Engås et al., 1996, Hassel et al., 2004, Slotte et al., 2004). Little is known about the acute effects of exposure to air guns on fish (Popper, 2003). Santulli et al. (1999) found evidence of biochemical stress responses of the European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax; Linnaeus, 1758) after exposure to seismic prospecting, with stress hormones returning to normal levels within 72 h after exposure. However, a field study by McCauley et al. (2003) showed that the ears of fish exposed to an operating air–gun sustained extensive damage to their sensory epithelia that was apparent as ablated hair cells, with no evidence of repair or replacement of the damaged sensory cells up to 58 days after air–gun exposure. On the other hand, Popper et al. (2005) found little impact of exposure to a 730 in3 air gun array on hearing of three fish species. Further experiments on different ocean conditions and with different species are thus necessary to reach a consensus regarding the deleterious effects of seismic prospecting on marine fish. In the present study we conducted a series of observations of coral reef fish in field enclosures before, during and after exposure to air guns to assess how they are affected by this disturbance.

Experiments were carried out near the islands of Tinharé and Boipeba, State of Bahia, Brazil (13o33'43.5'S – 38o48'59.9''W) using an array of 8 synchronized air guns, each with 10.4 l (635 of total capacity, supply pressure of 136 kg/cm3 (2.000 psi), and generated sound peak pressure of 196 dB (re 1 µPa ref 1 m), kept at a depth of 5 m. Sound levels were measured using a 24bit recording system (Model Geode) attached to hydrophones which were lowered into the sea from a local vessel. After being collected in situ using purse seine, specimens were transferred to net pens (2 x 2 x 1.20 m). The pens were made of  open PVC tubing, so that the water could flow inside to prevent the presence of air within them, thus preventing alterations in the sound field. The fish were fed pieces of shrimp and fish twice a day until being transferred to the experimental cage (1 x 1 x 0.7 m, Fig. 1) 1 h before the beginning of each experiment (except for experiment 3, in which case the fish were transferred 24 h prior to the experiment). Two video cameras (Aqua–Vu, ZT series, Nature Vision Inc.) placed on opposite sides of the cage recorded continuously the behavior of the enclosed fish 5–15 min before, during, and 5 min after exposure to air guns (Fig. 1). Divers checked the experimental cages immediately before each experiment.

Three different experimental configurations were used (Table 1), varying the number and identity of the fish species, the depth of the experimental cage and the distance from the air guns. In the second configuration, an individual of Lutjanus synagris showed clear evidence of poor health indicated by erratic and unbalanced swimming behavior. We decided to keep this individual during the experiment nevertheless, since its compromised health might cause it to be more susceptible to disturbance from air guns, therefore providing a slightly more conservative assessment.

Despite the relatively severe conditions, our experiments did not result in mortality or obvious external damage in any experimental configuration, including the case of the L. synagris specimen that had poor health at the beginning of the experiment. Rather, the vast majority of air gun shots resulted in a startle response in the form of a temporary increase in swimming velocity and/or a lateral shift in swimming direction, returning to normal swimming velocities shortly thereafter (Fig. 2). Moreover, repeated exposure to air guns seemed to result in increasingly less   obvious  startle  responses,   indicating   possible habituation to the disturbance. Our results are consistent with previous experiments under different conditions. Wardle et al. (2001) exposed marine fish to pressure levels between 210 and 218 dB (re 1 µPa ref 1 m) produced using a triple G. air gun and detected little effect on the "day–to–day" behavior of resident reef fish, despite the fact that specimens were not restricted inside field enclosures and could potentially swim away. We did not observe other behavioral changes such as milling or moving to the bottom of the cage (Pearson et al., 1992). Mauthner cell reflex (C–start reflex, Wardle et al., 2001) was observed occasionally, but it was not a consistent response among individuals or species for individual shots. In the second experiment, the field of view of one of the cameras also allowed the observation of the behavior of fishes outside the experimental cage, which departed immediately after the air gun started shooting. Therefore, evasion from the site where seismic prospecting is being conducted might further minimize the impact of air gun exposure on fish health.

In conclusion, exposure to air guns at the levels used in our experiments did not cause immediate fish mortality nor obvious short–term deleterious effects, as has been observed in other studies (e.g. Hassel et al., 2004). These results do not rule out possible physiological effects (e.g. Santulli et al., 1999). Even though the noise levels in our experiments are comparable to those routinely used in shallow water near–shore prospecting sites, future studies using much higher levels such as those used in deep ocean prospecting would be particularly revealing.



We thank Grant Geophysical, especially D. Matos and D. Araújo for logistic and operational support for this work. Invaluable field assistance was provided by our field personnel (R. T. Vianna, N. Sponholz) including the crew of Renasceu (Mundinho, Gerinho, Babau and Gaúcho) and by J. A. Duarte from the Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente. L. A. Pereira and R. W. Pilchowski provided laboratory support.



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(Manuscript received 22 November 2005; revised 06 March  2006 ; accepted 06 September 2006)




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