New partnership launched to predict impact of underwater noise on fish

A three-year Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)-funded Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between HR Wallingford and the University of Exeter has been launched this month, funded through NERC’s Marine Renewable Energy Knowledge Exchange (MREKE) programme.

The partnership builds on HR Wallingford’s existing experience in both underwater noise research and development of modelling tools for monitoring species movements in relation to anthropogenic disturbances.

The KTP Associate, behavioural ecologist Dr Rick Bruintjes, will work with Dr Diane Jones and her team on developing the HR Wallingford HAMMER model to incorporate behavioural response of marine species to noise from marine renewable energy devices (MRED) during construction and operation.  Changes in the aquatic soundscape can alter fishes’ natural habitats and may disrupt their behavioural patterns such as migration, detecting prey and predators, breeding, feeding, and sheltering.  Construction and operation of MRED have the potential to cause long-term disturbance.

Dr Jones explains: ‘We will investigate the behavioural and physiological responses of marine fish to underwater noise from MRED, and use this knowledge to build an individual based model (IBM) to predict the response of fish to noise for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA).  By working with fish experts at the University of Exeter, the behavioural and physiological parameters needed to realistically predict responses of fish to underwater noise will be identified and incorporated into the IBM.

The biological rules for the model will be determined at the University of Exeter, with Dr Bruintjes studying fish behaviour under the guidance of marine biologist Dr Steve Simpson and fish physiologist Prof Charles Tyler.  The project will also develop strategies for adapting knowledge from laboratory studies of behavioural responses to noise so they can be transferred to real-world environments. Dr Bruintjes explains: ‘As the project develops, through a number of established collaborations we will test the model by conducting field studies on targeted fish species at MRED development sites.’

An important aim of the KTP is to exchange knowledge and experience between professionals in distinctly different fields of science and technology.  HR Wallingford will gain an in-house knowledge of fish ecology and behaviour, along with an understanding of the scientific techniques used to establish hearing abilities in marine fish species. The KTP associate will gain valuable industry experience and an understanding of the assessments needed for an EIA as well as numerical modelling training during the development of the IBM.

The University also stands to benefit, as Dr Simpson explains: ‘The University of Exeter is excited about developing knowledge that will be applied to real-world challenges to underpin major marine management decisions. We have worked for 10 years on the behaviour of fish in noisy environments, but with the noise of construction for marine renewable energy high on the international agenda, this partnership provides the platform for our research to guide planning and policy in a multibillion-pound industry that is crucial for the UK meeting its CO2 commitments on emissions.’

Dr Jones adds: ‘At HR Wallingford we have been developing behavioural models of birds and fish for a number of years, with a particular focus on linking the behaviour to the processes we predict in our various physical models. Recent developments in offshore renewables and concerns about noise have given this work a new focus. We are therefore delighted to have this opportunity to work with specialists in fish behaviour to develop a model that should be of significant benefit to the marine industry.’

Date: 19 August 2013

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