“Dead bodies in net tows don’t lie.” That’s just one scientist’s verdict about the devastating effect of seismic surveys on sea life.
And yet a top U.S. official said last week that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will soon issue a proposal making large portions of the Atlantic available for oil and gas exploration using seismic surveys, or “seismic airguns.”
“One of the things that I have found absolutely thrilling in working for this administration,” said Joe Balash, the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, “is the president has a knack for keeping the attention of the media and the public focused somewhere else while we do all the work that needs to be done on behalf of the American people.”
Hmm. If you’re doing such great work, why wouldn’t you want the public to know about it? Let’s see if we can shine some light on this.
Back in 2014, the Obama administration reopened part of the Eastern seaboard to oil and gas exploration. The idea was tabled, though, because of overwhelming bipartisan opposition.
But “the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management leases out parcels of the ocean floor every five years, renewing questions every five years over who has access to the potential 46 billion barrels of oil off the Atlantic coast of the United States, from Delaware down to Florida,” according to inverse.com.
That’s why energy companies could again apply for drilling leases in 2018, with operations to start in 2019.
Before drilling can begin, of course, you have to find the oil — and that’s where the controversial seismic surveys come in. Some say the airguns pose merely a “nuisance” to marine life.
But here’s information from a variety of sources (including Fox Business News) so you can make your mind up for yourself.
What are seismic surveys?
“Seismic surveys are used to find oil and gas deep underneath the ocean floor. Seismic airguns are towed behind ships and shoot loud blasts of compressed air through the water and miles into the seabed, which reflect back information about buried oil and gas deposits.” — Oceana.org
Why are seismic surveys a concern?
“Scientists have warned that the extreme disruption caused by [seismic] airguns can harm a wide range of aquatic life, including sea turtles, fish and zooplankton, a critical foundational plank of the ocean food web. By the federal government’s own estimates, airgun testing could harm hundreds of thousands of marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. Of particular concern is the endangered North Atlantic right whale, with only around 440 individuals left, including fewer than 100 breeding females.” — The Guardian
“Seismic airgun testing currently being proposed in the Atlantic could injure 138,000 whales and dolphins and disturb millions more, according to government estimates.” — Oceana.org
“At 220–250 decibels, the pulses produced by these air guns are louder than a Saturn V rocket during launch.” — Oceana.org
“The cannons emit sound waves louder than a jet engine every ten seconds for weeks at a time.” — Time magazine
“The noise from these blasts is so loud that it can be heard up to 2,500 miles away — about the same distance as a flight from New York City to Los Angeles.” — The Baltimore Sun
How could seismic surveys harm marine life?
“Impacts include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, and even beach strandings and death. For whales and dolphins, which rely on their hearing to find food, communicate, and reproduce, being able to hear is a life-or-death matter. … Airgun blasts kill fish eggs and larvae and scare away fish from important habitats.” — Oceana.org
A 2005 study off the Tasmanian coast “… used sonar and nets to assess populations of zooplankton … before and after firing a series of air-gun shots. The team found that zooplankton abundance dropped by 64% within one hour of the blasts. And the proportion of dead zooplankton increased by 200–300% as far away as 1.2 kilometres — the maximum distance the researchers sampled. This suggests that the impact of the blasts could extend well beyond such distances.” — Scientific American
“Douglas Nowacek, a Duke University expert on the impact of noise on ocean life, has testified to Congress that the sounds, which can reach 260 decibels, are akin to being at ‘the epicenter of a grenade blast and would easily cause the rupture of the human eardrum,’ he said. ‘Many ocean animals, particularly marine mammals such as whales, rely for their very existence on their ability to use sound,’ Nowacek told the Natural Resources committee. ‘For these animals, sound is central to their ability to find food, to locate other animals, to avoid predators, to reproduce and thus, to survive.’” — The Guardian
Could seismic surveys harm humans?
A 2002 U.S. Navy study showed that sound at various frequencies can disrupt swimmers and divers, so the answer is potentially “yes” — especially if surveys are conducted within three miles of shore, as is currently proposed. — U.S. Navy
But the economic damage could be even more painful and widespread.
“Following seismic surveys, catch rates of cod and haddock declined by 40 to 80 percent for thousands of miles.” — Oceana.org
“If you start impacting the zooplankton population, that can cause a serious cascade through the food web.” — Scientific American
In other words: Seismic surveys could cause already-stressed fisheries to collapse, threatening thousands of American jobs and reducing the food supply for millions of people. — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
And there’s one more wrinkle: “Under the Obama administration, offshore drilling wasn’t allowed within 50 miles of the Atlantic coast. But the Trump administration has reduced this to three miles, as part of its ‘energy dominance’ agenda whereby vast swathes of ocean and land has been opened up for drilling.” — The Guardian
That’s not good for the tourism industry either, especially if the worst fears come true and waves of dead fish, dolphins, and whales start washing ashore.
What can you do?
If you’re alarmed by any of this, I urge you to contact your elected representatives — no matter where you live — and ask them to vocally oppose seismic surveys in the Atlantic.
As always, thank you for reading.