• Fish communicate with sound much more than anyone imagined, a new study says.
  • Their ability to communicate is threatened by ocean noise pollution, which impacts the health of the planet.
  • Time is running out to save our ocean and 2022 will be a pivotal year.

It turns out that fish love to chat.

A team led by Cornell University in the United States found that fish use sound to communicate to a much greater extent than had previously been realised. They also found evidence that some fish have been chatting for a very long time - 155 million years to be precise.

The team studied sounds produced by 34,000 fish species, and lead study author Aaron Rice told The Guardian that the sounds were best described as “boops”, “honks” and “hoots”.

The study revealed that sound was “a major mode of communication among fish,” Rice told the British newspaper, adding that the topics the fish were chatting about were mainly food and sex. “We see more elaborate sounds being produced in reproductive contexts,” he added.

Some fish make sounds by vibrating their swim bladders, while others rub their bones together to make noise, the researchers say, while the habit of chatting using swim bladder vibration can be traced back to early sturgeon 155 million years ago.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without a healthy ocean - but it's more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

A large group of fish swimming together
Schools of fish keep together by chatting, scientists say.
Image: Unsplash/Jet Kim

The danger of ocean noise pollution

Today’s fish use sounds to warn others about predators, indicate the presence of food, keep the shoal together and identify individuals. The researchers also say that evolution has favoured fish with the ability to communicate with sound.

Rice told The Guardian it was vital to reduce ocean noise pollution. “If you have literally millions of individual fish that are relying on communication sounds for the success of their populations, perturbing their acoustic environment may have real consequences,” he said.

Previous research found fish have “regional accents” depending on where in the ocean they live. A team from the UK’s Exeter University found American codfish make a “bop bop bop sound” while their European cousins use a “deep, rumbling growling”.

No healthy planet without a healthy ocean

Publication of the Cornell-led research coincides with a call from the Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action, UN Ocean Ambassador Peter Thomson, to make 2022 the year we halt the decline in the health of the world's ocean.

“Simply put, there can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean, and the ocean’s health is measurably in decline. Therefore, we must not squander the confluence of game-changing opportunities for ocean health that 2022 presents,” he said.

An ocean with land in the distant background
2022 is a critical year for efforts to save the ocean, experts say.
Image: WWF

Six major conferences on the state of the seas are planned in 2022, including the UN Oceans Conference in Lisbon, Portugal which opens at the end of June.

2022 is also the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture. “This year holds key opportunities for advancing ocean action, from securing a deal to end plastic pollution and eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies to prioritizing the ocean’s role in tackling climate change and in providing healthy, sustainable, equitable, affordable food for a growing population,” said Gemma Parkes, Communications Lead for Friends of Ocean Action at the World Economic Forum.