Researchers Attract Fish to Reef with Dazzling Acoustics

Speakers located by the Great Barrier Reef may help speed up restoration efforts.

Dec 2, 2020


Researchers Attract Fish to Reef with Dazzling Acoustics | Speakers located by the Great Barrier Reef may help speed up restoration efforts.

Scientists, healers, and artists have been exploring the impact of music on our emotional and physical wellbeing and development for decades. In the botanic world, playing music to plants has also grown in popularity. And now, a team of researchers have set out to explore a new client for sound therapy, finding very exciting results for the reefs of Australia. 

A new study from the University of Exeter that was published in the Nature Communications journal has found that playing underwater sounds can attract fish to degraded reefs, thus speeding up the recovery of these critical ecosystems. This is an important discovery because as the oceans warm, reefs are dying at an alarming rate.  

As climate change and pollution are quickly damaging the coral reefs around the world, new approaches are needed to both heal the degradation and protect these delicate ecosystems.

Researchers are focusing on the important role that fish can play in restoration efforts, having understood that actively maintaining the health of the fish may reverse the degradation. In other words, a healthy fish population means a healthy coral reef.

Fish communities, and especially young fish, help revitalize reefs by cleaning the area and by recycling nutrients, explains the study. However, such fish communities are also attracted to the many diverse sounds of a healthy and thriving space. 

"Healthy coral reefs are remarkably noisy places – the crackle of snapping shrimp and the whoops and grunts of fish combine to form a dazzling biological soundscape,” said Steve Simpson, professor at the University of Exeter and one of the study’s senior authors, in a university press release.

According to Treehugger, after fish have spent their larval stage in the open ocean, they come to reefs looking for a good place to call home. If young fish don’t hear signs of an active environment, they will swim away in search of a more alluring home.

After fish reject the reef, this can further speed up its degradation. The researchers therefore postulated that speakers mimicking the sounds of a lively reef could attract such fish populations, and aid in the recovery of the reef. 

To explore this possibility, the research team experimented in the Lizard Island Research Center on a damaged area of the Great Barrier Reef. Over 40 days, they used three scenarios: reefs with loudspeakers that played reef sounds, reefs with no loudspeaker, and reefs with a fake loudspeaker (to serve as a visual control). 

They found that reefs with the loudspeaker had attracted twice as many damselfishes as the other reefs. There was also a 50 percent increase in overall biodiversity in the acoustically-enriched reefs. 

Dr. Mark Meekan, one of the study’s authors, told Treehugger that acoustic enrichment could create what he calls a “snowball effect” in which new fish will then be attracted to communities that were previously established. As one community of marine life engages a reef, more species will be drawn in, assisting in restoring a whole ecosystem.

The researchers noted that while this discovery is very exciting, it alone cannot adequately restore reefs. This acoustic method should be used in conjunction with other rehabilitation efforts, including those that address the root causes of coral bleaching.

Everyone can play a role in protecting reefs. Individuals can support this delicate ecosystem’s restoration by avoiding physical contact with reefs, using eco-friendly sunscreen, minimizing consumption of seafood, and other environmental acts that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By holistically integrating changes in behavior alongside nature-based innovations, scientists, companies, and individuals can come together to restore these vibrant, majestic, and critical ecosystems. 

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Hilla Benzaken is a dedicated optimist. Her happy place involves cooking, acting, gardening, and fighting for social justice. She writes about all things sustainability, innovation, and DIY.