Dr Victoria Todd presented on sharks at the 2017 Petroleum Exploration & Production Association of New Zealand (PEPANZ) conference

Ocean Science Consulting (OSC) Ltd. Managing Director, Dr Victoria Todd, presented at the 2017 PEPANZ conference, held in New Zealand (NZ), on March 23rd 2017. The conference brings together companies, scientists and researchers to help members of the PEPANZ achieve the safe, sustainable, and profitable development of NZ’s offshore oil and gas resources.

To help contribute to the sustainability of the industry, Dr Todd reflected on the current research on interactions between sharks and submarine power cables. Dr Todd concluded with recommendations for further research to fill knowledge gaps that would better-inform mitigation measures and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). By following Dr Todd’s suggestions, this will allow offshore oil and gas stakeholders to make more sustainable and environmentally-sound decisions that would reduce the effect, if any, of submarine power cables on elasmobranch behaviour.

The research that supported Dr Todd’s request for future study can be found below, in a short, but very thorough review of the literature relating to sharks and power cables.

Shark and submarine power cable illustration by Dan Coles. © OSC 2017

Shark and submarine power cable illustration by Dan Coles. © OSC 2017

Interactions between sharks and cables in the ocean


Globally, there are numerous submarine power cables that transmit power out to major islands or between countries, for example the Spain-Morocco Interconnection which runs two submarine High Voltage Alternating Current (HVAC) cables for 26 km across the Mediterranean, or the Basslink between mainland Australia and Tasmania which includes 290 km of High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) submarine cables that run across the Bass Straight (Valenza & Cipollini 1995; Basslink 2012). Submarine cables are also used to transfer electricity across estuaries or to near-shore islands over shorter distances.

Elasmobranch electroreception

The morphology and sensitivity of the elasmobranch electroreceptive system varies across species, and reflects the vast interspecific variation in habitat, prey and foraging strategies amongst elasmobranchs (Raschi 1978; Tricas 2001). Experiments with dusky smooth-hounds (Mustelus canis Mitchell, 1815) have demonstrated sensitivity to electric potentials as weak as 5 nV cm-1 (Kalmijn 1982). Juvenile scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini Griffith & Smith, 1834), sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus Nardo, 1827) and neonatal bonnethead sharks (Sphyrna tiburo Linnaeus, 1758) have all demonstrated behavioural responses to thresholds as low as 1 nV cm-1 (Kajiura & Holland 2002; Kajiura 2003). It is worth noting that whilst nV cm-1 is not a standard unit according to the International System of Units (SI), it is used typically in the field of elasmobranch electrosensitivity, and facilitates the comparison between the weak electric fields induced around power cables and the extreme sensitivity of elasmobranchs.

Marine organisms produce weak bi-polar electric fields as part of the process of osmoregulatory ion exchange with seawater. Electrical signals are also produced through direct movement of muscles or firing of nerves (Potts & Hedges 1991; Wilkens & Hofmann 2005; Kimber et al. 2011). Capacity of the elasmobranch electrosensory system to detect very weak, low frequency bioelectric fields enables its use in the detection of the bioelectric fields produced by prey.

Round stingrays (Urolophus halleri Cooper 1863) have been shown to use electroreception to detect the bioelectric fields partially produced through the ventilator movements of the gill slits and spiracles of conspecifics during the mating season. Males use electroreception to detect buried females to mate with. Females use electroreception to locate other buried females, possibly to find refuge for less receptive females (Tricas et al. 1995; Sisneros & Tricas 2002).

Elasmobranchs have also been shown to use electroreception in the detection of predators. Embryos of both the oviparous clearnose skate (Raja eglanteria Bosc, 1800) and brown-banded bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum Müller & Henle, 1838) have been shown to cease moving when exposed to electrical fields corresponding to natural signals produced by their potential predators (Sisneros et al. 1998; Kempster et al. 2013).

Seawater’s electrolytic properties mean that motional electric fields are induced as it flows through the Earth’s magnetic field (von Arx 1962; Manoj et al. 2006). It is accepted generally that elasmobranchs use such fields to navigate the oceans on a large, possibly global, scale (Klimley 1993; Klimley et al. 2002; Meyer et al. 2005). Whilst it has been shown that sharks can detect changes in geomagnetic fields, it is not yet clear whether the mechanism of detection of these fields stems from induction-based electroreception or direct magnetoreception through magnetite-based receptors (Montgomery & Walker 2001; Meyer et al. 2005; Molteno & Kennedy 2009).

Concerns over responses of elasmobranchs to cables

There is well-documented evidence of elasmobranchs avoiding strong, artificial magnetic fields (O’Connell et al. 2010; O’Connell et al. 2011). There is also evidence of elasmobranchs avoiding very large electrical voltage potentials. Strong magnetic and electrical fields are thought to irritate and potentially overwhelm elasmobranchs’ electroreceptive system, although the upper parameters of the electrosensory system have yet to be determined (Howard 2011).

It has been suggested that elasmobranch bycatch could be reduced with electricity-based deterrent devices that would irritate and deter elasmobranchs but not target teleost species. Although electricity-based shark repellent devices for divers have been developed, as yet, there has been little success in the development of commercially-viable bycatch reduction devices due to various practical considerations and problems with habituation (Stoner & Kaimmer 2008; Howard 2011).

There have also been instances where intended deterrents have instead acted as attractants, suggesting that elasmobranchs’ responses to strong magnetic or electric fields is context-dependent and extremely variable between species (Huveneers et al. 2013; O’Connell et al. 2014; Porsmoguer et al. 2015).

If induced electrical fields are at the higher end of the electroreceptive spectrum, a deterrent effect could be observed. Whilst the area of impact will be restricted to a corridor along or across the cable, migration routes travelling over the cables could be disrupted if an avoidance response is caused (Wilson et al. 2010; Normandeau et al. 2011). Conversely, if induced electrical fields are in a similar range to those of a species’ prey, cables may elicit an attraction and foraging response (Wilson et al. 2010; Kimber et al. 2011). Many electroreception experiments involve the use of artificial fields that approximate those of prey and to which elasmobranchs generally show a foraging response (Kalmijn & Weinger 1981; Kalmijn 1982; Gardiner et al. 2012). This could lead to poor foraging success within the vicinity of cables, particularly in benthic species that forage for buried prey and are particularly reliant on their electrosensory system. This may eventually have implications on population fitness if an area is used as a nursery ground, for example (Wilson et al. 2010; Kimber et al. 2011).

It is possible that any negative behavioural effects of underwater cables would diminish over time as animals either habituate or learn to avoid an area of poor foraging success; however, this is only likely to be the case in populations that are relatively sedentary. Migratory populations or species may be more heavily impacted (Guttridge et al. 2009).

Current research into submarine power cable impacts

Research into the effects of submarine power cables on elasmobranchs is currently very limited (Boehlert & Gill 2010; Kimber et al. 2011; Normandeau et al. 2011; Gill et al. 2014). Whilst a number of literature reviews and reports on the theoretical effects of anthropogenic ElectroMagnetic Fields (EMFs) on elasmobranchs have been published, dedicated studies are currently extremely limited. Only one known field study has been conducted, which found inter- and intra-specific variation in responses (Gill et al. 2009; Gill et al. 2014). One known set of laboratory studies have been carried out, which found that 198 A DC power cables prompted a small investigative behavioural response, whereas 75 A AC power cables had no significant behavioural effect (Orr 2016). Whilst the set of laboratory studies only covered a few specific cases, they provide the foundation for further research, which is clearly required, and give some indication that submarine power cables are unlikely to have a strong impact on benthic elasmobranchs.

For more information on submarine power cable impacts on marine biodiversity, specifically marine mammals, please refer to OSC’s online encyclopaedia. This resource hosts a wealth of information on subjects relevant to offshore operations and marine mammal mitigation services.


Basslink (2012) Maps. URL www.basslink.com.au
Boehlert G.W. & Gill A.B. (2010) Environmental and ecological effects of ocean renewable energy development:
a current synthesis. Oceanography 23, 68-81.
Gardiner J.M., Hueter R.E., Maruska K.P., Sisneros J.A., Casper B.M., Mann D.A. & Demski L.S. (2012) Sensory
physiology and behaviour of elasmobranchs. In: Biology of Sharks and Their Relatives (eds. by Carrier JC, Musick JA & Heithaus MR), pp. 349-401. CRC Press, Boca Raton.
Gill A.B., Huang Y., Gloyne-Philips I., Metcalfe J., Quayle V., Spencer J. & Wearmouth V. (2009) COWRIE 2.0
electromagnetic fields (EMF) Phase 2: EMF-sensitive fish response to EM emissions from sub-sea electricity cables of the type used by the offshore renewable energy industry. Commissioned by COWRIE Ltd (project reference COWRIE-EMF-1-06).
Gill B.A., Gloyne-Philips I., Kimber J. & Sigray P. (2014) Marine renewable energy, electromagnetic (EM)
fields and EM-sensitive animals. In: Marine Renewable Energy Technology and Environmental Interactions (eds. by Shields AM & Payne ILA), pp. 61-79. Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht.
Guttridge T.L., Myrberg A.A., Porcher I.F., Sims D.W. & Krause J. (2009) The role of learning in
shark behaviour. Fish and Fisheries 10, 450-69.
Howard S. (2011) Elasmobranch electrosensory biology and bycatch reduction. In: Leigh Marine Laboratory.
University of Auckland, Auckland.
Huveneers C., Rogers P.J., Semmens J.M., Beckmann C., Kock A.A., Page B. & Goldsworthy S.D.
(2013) Effects of an electric field on white sharks: In situ testing of an electric deterrent. In: PLoS ONE, p. e62730.
Kajiura S.M. (2003) Electroreception in neonatal bonnethead sharks, Sphyrna tiburo. Marine Biology 143, 603-11.
Kajiura S.M. & Holland K.N. (2002) Electroreception in juvenile scalloped hammerhead and sandbar sharks. Journal
of Experimental Biology 205, 3609-21.
Kalmijn A.J. (1982) Electric and magnetic field detection in elasmobranch fishes. Science 218, 916-8.
Kalmijn A.J. & Weinger M.B. (1981) An electrical simulator of moving prey for the study of feeding strategies in
sharks, skates, and rays. Annals of Biomedical Engineering 9, 363-7.
Kempster R.M., Hart N.S. & Collin S.P. (2013) Survival of the stillest: Predator avoidance in shark embryos. In:
PLoS ONE, p. e52551.
Kimber J.A., Sims D.W., Bellamy P.H. & Gill A.B. (2011) The ability of a benthic elasmobranch to discriminate
between biological and artificial electric fields. Marine Biology 158, 1-8.
Klimley A.P. (1993) Highly directional swimming by scalloped hammerhead sharks, Sphyrna lewini, and subsurface
irradiance, temperature, bathymetry and geomagnetic field. Marine Biology 117, 1-22.
Klimley A.P., Beavers S.C., Curtis T.H. & Jorgensen S.J. (2002) Movements and swimming behavior of three species
of sharks in La Jolla Canyon, California. Environmental Biology of Fishes 63, 117-35.
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and Space 58, 429-37.
Meyer C.G., Holland K.N. & Papastamatiou Y.P. (2005) Sharks can detect changes in the geomagnetic field. Journal
of the Royal Society Interface 2, 129-30.
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of Biophysics 2009, 380976.

The Effect of Noise on Aquatic Life conference July 2016, Dublin, Ireland

Two of Ocean Science Consulting’s directors, Dr Victoria Todd and Ian Todd, attended the fourth international The Effect of Noise on Aquatic Life conference (AN2016), held in Dublin, Ireland, 10–15 July 2016.

The conference covered a broad range of topics related to the impacts of man-made noise from regulatory, industry and academic perspectives, which makes for a lively mix when it comes to discussions. The last Aquatic Noise conference (held in Budapest) was in 2013, so it was interesting to see how research and regulatory guidelines have progressed. In short, the focus this year was on invertebrates, which surprised just about everybody there.

Ian Todd catching up with Max Ruffert (from Edinburgh University). © V. Todd 2016

Ian Todd catching up with Max Ruffert (from Edinburgh University). © V. Todd 2016

Research of interest: highlights

Ocean Science Consulting (OSC) is of course, very interested on research involving direct impacts on marine mammals, but because impacts can also be indirect and impacts are all interlinked, research regarding sound levels in the ocean and impacts of noise on potential prey is equally crucial.μ

Some fascinating work was presented by Dragon et al. (2016), who found that the radius of avoidance around pile-driving activities shown by harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) decreases as wind speeds increases, probably due to a natural ‘bubble curtain’ effect. Another research group investigated the activity of harbour porpoises around a research platform in the North Sea and found a high rate of occurrence (we’ve found similar patterns around oil and gas installations). An automated visual detection algorithm was also developed to concurrently detect harbour porpoises visually, though this was only possible in good visibility (Ludwig et al. 2016). From a more technological standpoint, research comparing results obtained from two different technologies (C-POD vs SoundTrap) when investigating the influence on shipping noise on harbour porpoises. The two technologies gave drastically different results, although it is not yet clear why (Sarnocińska et al. 2016). Something to keep an eye on!

A good number of talks and posts presented data regarding noise levels around different activities, such as during diamond-wire cutting (Pangerc 2016) and mapping shipping noise in the western North Sea (Farcas et al. 2016). Research around noise levels in the ocean helps to refine sound propagation loss models often used to determine mitigation zones for marine mammals around loud offshore activities. Various aspects of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ocean Noise Strategy were presented, including their assessment of long-term trends in underwater soundscapes (Gedamke et al. 2016; Harrison et al. 2016).

Fish are also susceptible to impacts from noise in the oceans, and as a food source for many marine mammals, effects on fish populations can affect marine mammals populations. Some interesting research looking at effects of noise from a small boat on temperate reef fish in New Zealand was presented. Fish numbers and activity outside a marine reserve decreased significantly in the presence of boat noise, whereas fish within a marine reserve did not show much behavioural response to the boat noise (Mensinger et al. 2016). A tool to predict impacts of anthropogenic noise on fish, the Hydro-Acoustic Model for Mitigation and Ecological Response (HAMMER) was also presented (Bruintjes et al. 2016).

Jason Gedamke (From NOAA) presenting. © V. Todd 2016

Jason Gedamke (From NOAA) presenting. © V. Todd 2016

Abstracts from all the presentations and posters are currently available on the conference website.


Bruintjes R., Benson T., Rossington K. & Simpson S.D. (2016) HAMMER: A tool to predict impacts of anthropogenic
noise on fishes. In: The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland.
Dragon A.-C., Brandt M., Diederichs A. & Nehls G. (2016) Does wind cause a natural bubble curtain minimizing
porpoise avoidance effects during pile driving operations? In: The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland.
Farcas A., Brookes K.L. & Merchant N.D. (2016) A shipping noise map of the western North Sea. In: The Effects
of Noise on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland.
Gedamke J., Klinck H., Dziak R.P., Barlow J., Berchok C., Hatch L., Hanson B., Haver S., Haxel J., Holt M., Matsumoto
H., McKenna M., Meinig C., Mellinger D.K., Oleson E., Soldevilla M. & Van Parijs S. (2016) A sound system for US Exclusive Economic Zone waters, NOAA’s ocean noise reference station network. In: The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland.
Harrison J., Gedamke J. & Hatch L. (2016) NOAA Ocean Noise Strategy: moving forward. In: The Effects of Noise
on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland.
Ludwig S., Knoll M., Schaffeld T., Daehne M., Wulf S., Görler M., Ruser A., Siebert U. & Gerdes F. (2016) Static acoustic
monitoring of harbor porpoises at the research platform FINO 3, German Bight, North Sea. In: The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland.
Mensinger A.F., Putland R.L. & Radford C.A. (2016) Effect of boat motor noise on temperate reef fish behavior In: The Effects of
Noise on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland.
Pangerc T. (2016) Underwater sound measurement data during diamond-wire cutting. In: The Effects of Noise on Aquatic
Life, Dublin, Ireland.
Sarnocińska J., Wahlberg M. & Tougaard J. (2016) Influence of shipping noise on the acoustic activity of the harbor
porpoise Phocoena phocoena. In: The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland.

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