How whales and dolphins may be harmed by oil prospectors' seismic airguns

Conservationists are particularly worried about the North Atlantic right whale, a species verging on extinction.

By Sarah Gibbens
Published 3 Dec 2018, 08:48 GMT
A North Atlantic right whale trawls with open mouth along the surface. It's food supply could ...
A North Atlantic right whale trawls with open mouth along the surface. It's food supply could be jeopardised by seismic airgun blasts.
Photograph by Brian J. Skerry, Nat Geo Image Collection

Five oil and gas companies have been given the green light to use seismic airgun blasts to search for lucrative oil and gas deposits that could be buried in the sea floor from New Jersey to Florida.

The proposal was shot down by the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in 2017 after it was deemed unsafe for marine life, but a recent review by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded the blasts could be done without significantly threatening the population status of threatened or endangered species. The basis of NOAA's investigation was to determine whether or not the activity would violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Large marine mammals like whales and dolphin use sound for communicating, feeding, and mating, meaning the blasts could impact all three of those essential activities.

The blasts could potentially harm commercial fishing, but conservationists are particularly concerned about critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which only about 450 remain.

To mitigate impact to wildlife, NOAA says seismic blasts will not be allowed from November to April in certain regions of the Atlantic where North Atlantic right whales are known to migrate. Additionally, boats conducting seismic operations will be required to have a NOAA observer on board to monitor incidental take.

During a press call, biologist Benjamin Laws from the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources said observers will notify when whales are in the vicinity and that blasts will not be allowed within 56 miles (90 kilometres) of endangered marine mammals.

Diane Hoskins from Oceana says this won't be enough to protect the species, noting that the sound from these intense blasts can travel over 2,000 miles.

Laws says NOAA's decision to grant incidental take authorisations also considered whether species that marine mammals rely on for prey would be impacted. They determined the blasts wouldn't be so detrimental that they might impact how much food is available.

A study published last summer found the smallest members of the oceanic food chain can be killed by seismic air blasts. Zooplankton—tiny creatures like baby jellyfish, crustaceans, and larvae—were found to have declined by 64 percent within 1,300 metres (4,000 feet) of the blast.

In addition to risks posed for wildlife, environmentalists are concerned that the seismic blasts are opening the door to oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, which is highly controversial. This past November, Florida banned offshore drilling, a move that's in step with 300 municipalities and 2,000 local officials who have formally opposed offshore drilling.

Seismic airguns were last used in the region to search for oil in the 1980s and since then have only been used in the northern Atlantic for academic research. Permits, however, are regularly reviewed for exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and off the west coast.

Legal challenges may ensue as companies eye offshore drilling spots.

“The Atlantic Coast could be turned from beach towns to oil towns,” says Hoskins. “We're going to look at every available tool to fight this.

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