In view of the rapid extension of offshore wind farms, there is an urgent need to improve our knowledge on possible adverse effects of underwater sound generated by pile-driving. Mortality and injuries have been observed in fish exposed to loud impulse sounds, but knowledge on the sound levels at which (sub-)lethal effects occur is limited for juvenile and adult fish, and virtually non-existent for fish eggs and larvae. A device was developed in which fish larvae can be exposed to underwater sound. It consists of a rigid-walled cylindrical chamber driven by an electro-dynamical sound projector. Samples of up to 100 larvae can be exposed simultaneously to a homogeneously distributed sound pressure and particle velocity field. Recorded pile-driving sounds could be reproduced accurately in the frequency range between 50 and 1000 Hz, at zero to peak pressure levels up to 210 dB re 1µPa2 (zero to peak pressures up to 32 kPa) and single pulse sound exposure levels up to 186 dB re 1µPa2s. The device was used to examine lethal effects of sound exposure in common sole (Solea solea) larvae. Different developmental stages were exposed to various levels and durations of pile-driving sound. The highest cumulative sound exposure level applied was 206 dB re 1µPa2s, which corresponds to 100 strikes at a distance of 100 m from a typical North Sea pile-driving site. The results showed no statistically significant differences in mortality between exposure and control groups at sound exposure levels which were well above the US interim criteria for non-auditory tissue damage in fish. Although our findings cannot be extrapolated to fish larvae in general, as interspecific differences in vulnerability to sound exposure may occur, they do indicate that previous assumptions and criteria may need to be revised.
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