As the U.S. government continues with its plan to use powerful airguns to conduct a sound blasting research along the entire U.S. East Coast, environmentalists warn that the technology used is known to cause mass animal death. Furthermore, they warn, the explosive sounds produced by this testing will have devastating impacts on all marine life, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish and shellfish and will also harm tourism and fishing industries.
A 2-D seismic vessel survey of the Eastern Seaboard led by USGS is planed between August and September 2014 and April and August 2015 to identify the outer limits of the United States continental shelf and study potential tsunami-related hazards. The research would begin near the U.S.-Canadian offshore border, and extend as far south as Florida. However, the plan still needs to be approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
According to environmental organization Clean Ocean Action (COA), the proposed sound blasting project includes the use of an array of 36 airguns (also called sonic cannons) which will blast the ocean at 236 - 265 decibels every 20 to 24 seconds, 24 hours a day for at least 17 days each year of the survey.
In the mail sent to NOAA, COA urged the denial of National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) incidental harassment authorization (IHA) of the proposed project on the grounds that it threatens serious harm to numerous species of marine mammals and is therefore contrary to the goals, mandates, and prohibitions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
COA said a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) should be completed prior to the consideration of the IHA, to remedy issues of incomplete information, inadequate assessment of impacts, and insufficient evaluation of alternatives and mitigation measures. Importantly, the proposed project should not be conducted during the spring and summer months, which are the peak of marine mammal (and other marine species) feeding, breeding, and/or calving activity off the mid-Atlantic. Moreover, NMFS should ensure that best available science and regulatory review are incorporated into the EIS and IHA, require stronger mitigation measures, and consider different times of year for the proposed research.
Concurrently with airgun operations, the East Coast sound blasting research plans to use a high-frequency Kongsberg EM 122 multibeam echosounder which produces sound in the 10.5 to 13.0 kHz frequency range. This is within the optimal hearing spectrum for many odontocete species that may occur in the study area, COA warns. They claim that the 12-kHz multibeam echosounder system operated by an Exxon survey vessel off the coast of Madagascar was implicated by an independent scientific review panel (ISRP) in the mass-stranding of approximately 100 melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra) in 2008.
Furthermore, a 2002 seismic expedition in the Gulf of California, lead by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University (which is also a part of East Coast sound blasting research), employed a similar multibeam sonar system with a center frequency of 15.5 kHz and source levels of 237 dB. Beaked whale strandings observed in the area of the survey in September 2002 may have been linked to the use of this technology – a federal judge responded by ordering the ship to cease operations.
Based on the correlation between these previous stranding events and the use of multibeam sonar technology, COA believes it is imperative that NMFS fully assess the potential for this source to impact marine mammals both on its own and in concert with seismic airgun blasts.
A battle lost
While many have been fighting to stop seismic testing for oil and gas exploration in the waters south of New Jersey, the public learned on March 17th that a comparable seismic study is proposed off New Jersey’s coast this summer.
A vast region off the Jersey Shore will be exposed to seismic airgun blasts (like those for oil and gas research) and in addition, three other acoustic blast technologies that may have harmful effects.
The purpose of the study is to assess to deep sea sediments from 60 million years ago to present to better understand climate change and historical changes in sea level.
However, the data gathered will be public information and there is no doubt that the oil and gas industry could use the data to look for gas deposits—especially methane hydrates, frozen natural gas, also known as fire ice.
These can be found well within the 11,500 foot depth range of the study.
That particular study is planed to be conducted just 15 miles off the Barnegat Inlet, NJ, in a 230 square mile area. The study will blast sound waves that are orders of magnitude louder than a jet plane at takeoff every 5 seconds continuously 24/7 for 30 days from July through August.
These astonishingly loud blasts will be emitted from up to 8 guns firing at once.
Sound blasting is also used in oil and gas research
While the USGS stresses that the East Coast sound blasting research is not being done to map the potential oil, gas or mineral deposits, it is interesting to note that seismic airgun blasts are also being used for oil and gas research and that oil companies have just recently been given the green light for sound blasting the East Coast.
On July 18, 2014, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced its issuance of the Record of Decision for environmental review of geological and geophysical survey activities associated with oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast, which has been under a drilling moratorium for decades. You can read COA’s press release on this issue here.
U.S. oil and gas companies have been itching for decades to drill in the ocean off the Eastern Seaboard, where billions of barrels of oil are thought to be locked underground. But a longstanding moratorium has kept those coveted Atlantic Coast resources out of reach. Now, however, the Obama administration is clearing the way for what could be an offshore oil boom from Delaware down to Florida.
On Friday, [July 18, 2014] the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management gave oil companies permission to scan the ocean floor for oil and gas deposits using powerful sonic blasts – a technology that the government estimates could harm nearly 140,000 sea creatures, including endangered whales and sea turtles, the Associated Press first reported. The sonic scanning allows oil exploration firms to gather preliminary data as they prepare to apply for federal drilling leases in 2018.
Featured image: Golden Whale Tale by Tim Taylor (CC - Flickr)