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Could man-made noise interfere with cod reproduction?

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Fisherman Reg Best holds a cod in Motion Bay near Petty Harbour in Newfoundland.
Fisherman Reg Best holds a cod in Motion Bay near Petty Harbour in Newfoundland.(Craig F. Walker)

A new study of Britain's seas is attempting to determine whether man-made aquatic noise is affecting the communication and breeding of cod.

Led by Steve Simpson, associate professor in marine biology and global change at the University of Exeter, the study will look at how unnatural noise — from shipping, wind farm construction, and oil and gas drilling — has affected the reproductive behavior of fish.

Cod and haddock, for instance, are known to use certain sounds to attract mates.

"We're interested in whether the human noise we're making is drowning this out," Simpson said.

Additionally, the two-year study will seek to determine whether fish — not unlike killer whales and songbirds — have "regional accents," or mating calls particular to certain areas. Climate change has sent some fish migrating north in search of cooler waters, and the result could be a sort of underwater language barrier, according to the British scientists. (On this side of the Atlantic, warming waters have coincided with a dramatic drop in cod stocks.)

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"Different regional populations coming into contact for the first time may not share the same vocal repertoire and could struggle to integrate, share territory and breed," according to a press release on the study.

Says Simpson, in an e-mail: "We know fish use sound during reproduction, that human noise has altered marine soundscapes, that regionally segregated fish may have divergent calls, and that they are being remixed due to warming. We are (exploring) this, particularly to advise on how to manage human noise in the ocean."

The good news?

"With sound, we can control exactly when and where we make it," Simpson says. ". . .It's a very controllable pollutant."


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.