Could Miami’s Ultra music festival be so loud it’s bad for fish?

Last week when University of Miami scientists raised concerns about damage to research fish if Ultra moves its thumping, bone-rattling electronic dance music festival near the school’s labs on Virginia Key, their objections were met with a good measure of disdain.

“In today’s latest segment of UM doing weird nerd stuff,” one critic posted on Twitter.

But it turns out ocean noise pollution is not just nerd stuff and, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it’s becoming a chronic problem for marine life.

In 2016, the agency adopted a 10-year plan to deal with increasingly noisy U.S. waters, where the whir of boat engines, underwater construction, drilling and other activities are interfering with the ability of marine life, including manatees, dolphins, reef fish and shrimp, to locate food, escape predators and even find love.

So it’s not just research fish that could suffer from the thundering EDM.

Virginia Key provides a rare wildlife sanctuary in the heart of urban Miami long targeted by conservationists for protection. The 860-acre island holds nesting habitat for endangered sea turtles, crocodiles and seabirds and borders the Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlfe Area created in 1990 after speedboat racing ended at the marine stadium. Today all boats, even kayaks, are banned to protect seagrass pastures for grazing manatees.

“If it’s so disruptive to homeowners in downtown and all the way to Brickell — behind hurricane glass — that they voted not to have [the festival] in their community anymore, imagine how disruptive it’s going to be to wildlife,” said Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein. “This is an area that is supposed to be set aside for wildlife.”

Ultra sensitive areas off limits.PNG
Under their contract with the city of Miami, Ultra organizers must steer clear of sensitive wildlife areas outlined in red. Source: City of Miami

Miami city commissioners agreed last week to move the festival from its 18-year home at Bayfront Park amid mounting complaints about noise and traffic from downtown’s growing condo community. Non-fans say the three-day festival, which attracts about 40,000 fans a day to hear acts like the Chainsmokers, Crystal Method and Tiësto, now triggers an annual exodus of downtown dwellers.

Organizers have said that they will work with environmental regulators and that loud music will not reach UM’s research tanks, housed about 1,200 feet from the beachfront park, one of two locations on the Key approved for stages.

Under the contract, music is limited to 110 decibels within 60 feet of each stage. Where the loudest sounds will be heard depends on the number of stages and how they are oriented. Organizers said they expect to erect more stages in the parking lot outside Miami Marine Stadium than along the beach.

But because water amplifies sound, Roni Avissar, dean of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, warned that noise could be louder when it enters the tanks: 110 decibels equals about 172 decibels in water. That’s louder than a jet engine and loud enough to break glass.

Ultra aerial.JPG
An aerial view of the 2017 Ultra Music Festival as workers set up the event in Bayfront Park. Patrick Farrell

The festival also coincides with spawning season for cobia, mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna and other research fish. The school has spent years breeding the fish to develop a specific genetic broodstock, Rosenstiel marine biologist Martin Grossell said in an email, and damage to the fish could jeopardize research efforts, which helped seal a $19 billion settlement after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At least $4.2 million in research grants could also be lost.

“Success is directly related to the well-being of the broodstock, which takes three to four years to develop,” he said.

It also comes at a vulnerable time for the university’s hatchery lab. Before Hurricane Irma, many of the fish were moved to Rosenstiel’s reinforced hurricane surge tank, normally used to test the ferocity of hurricane waves, to protect them. The lab itself suffered significant damage, he said. Coming so soon after, the booming music could do long-term damage to the fish. In the short term, they worry it could literally startle them to death, causing the fish to slam into the sides of tanks or jump out in an effort to escape the sound.

“If humans are disturbed, it is highly likely the animals are, and the animals tend to have less capacity and resilience to cope with the disturbance due to a whole host of other, mainly human-caused stressors and threats,” said Canadian biologist Linda Weilgart, who compiled a 2018 Oceancare report that looked at research on ocean noise from 115 studies.

Ultra Virginia Key beach map.PNG
An aerial view of Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, where parts of the 2019 Ultra festival will be held. Tanks where the University of Miami breeds research fish are located just south of the area marked in red.

To determine the precise impacts, scientists would need to calculate the angle that noise enters water, distance and decibel, she said in an email.

“The point is how far these tanks are from the source of the sound,” the speakers, she said. “I can’t really say, other than it is a really loud sound.”

While NOAA considers “behavioral harassment” to begin at about 120 decibels, the agency doesn’t yet have a uniform threshold, partly because sound could affect species differently. How different sounds come together or cause fish to react differently is also not well understood. The ocean is plenty noisy, but scientists believe increasing man-made noises are causing a masking effect that interfere with how fish live and behave.

The most well-documented cases involve military sonar on dolphins and whales. In 2000, a half dozen whales and dozens of other mammals, some with bleeding ears, beached themselves near Abaco Island. In 2005, 34 difference species of whales beached themselves in North Carolina following military testing. Last year, the U.S. Navy agreed to limit sonar and explosions along the southeastern coast to help protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Lab tests have also shown effects can be profound on fish, including internal injuries, hearing loss and death, according to Weilgart’s report. Scallop larvae blasted by seismic airguns suffered from developmental delays and deformed bodies. Sea hare larvae exposed to ship noise also suffered developmental delays while Atlantic cod larvae had smaller bodies. Boat noise also disoriented baby reef fish, which could impede their ability to make it safely to reefs for food and shelter.

Animals also showed more aggression, ate and courted less, and produced fewer eggs. Studies also found that catches in noisy areas declined, with larger fish leaving the area, the study said.

In March 2018, the Ultra Music Festival at Bayfront Park included this giant, fire-spewing spider. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Silverstein also worries the concert could coincide with bird nesting season and that loud music would cause birds to flee nests with chicks or eggs. Research also suggests it could affect how manatees move through the area, she said.

“They’ve already had a catastrophic year because of the red tides and further impeding reproduction and recovery, and disturbing these marine animals, is further harm,” she said.

Members of the Virginia Key Beach Trust, the semi-autonomous city agency that manages the park, also raised concerns at a meeting this week. The Trust has worked to preserve the historic park, including eliminating invasive vegetation and restoring native species.

“The natural character of the island has always been one of its assets,” said Gene Tinnie, chairman of the board.

Before the March concert, Ultra must obtain any required permits. As of Friday, county and state environmental agencies said they had not yet received any applications.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich