Airguns used for offshore seismic exploration by the oil and gas industry contribute to globally increasing anthropogenic noise levels in the marine environment. There is concern that the omnidirectional, high intensity sound pulses created by airguns may alter fish physiology and behaviour. A controlled short-term field experiment was performed to investigate the effects of sound exposure from a seismic airgun on the physiology and behaviour of two socioeconomically and ecologically important marine fishes: the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and saithe (Pollachius virens). Biologgers recording heart rate and body temperature and acoustic transmitters recording locomotory activity (i.e. acceleration) and depth were used to monitor free-swimming individuals during experimental sound exposures (18–60 dB above ambient). Fish were held in a large sea cage (50 m diameter; 25 m depth) and exposed to sound exposure trials over a 3-day period. Concurrently, the behaviour of untagged cod and saithe was monitored using video recording. The cod exhibited reduced heart rate (bradycardia) in response to the particle motion component of the sound from the airgun, indicative of an initial flight response. No behavioural startle response to the airgun was observed; both cod and saithe changed both swimming depth and horizontal position more frequently during sound production. The saithe became more dispersed in response to the elevated sound levels. The fish seemed to habituate both physiologically and behaviourally with repeated exposure. In conclusion, the sound exposures induced over the time frames used in this study appear unlikely to be associated with long-term alterations in physiology or behaviour. However, additional research is needed to fully understand the ecological consequences of airgun use in marine ecosystems.
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