Testing the Waters
That obnoxious conversation behind you clocks in at 60 decibels. The old Harley that just roared down 13th Street? 90 decibels. At 130 decibels sound is physically painful to the human ear.
A single blast from a seismic airgun, used for oil exploration, racks up 190 decibels. Underwater, each blast is amplified to 250 decibels — 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) is currently pending approval of industrial seismic airgun surveying to search for offshore oil and gas reserves spanning from Florida to Delaware.
A fleet of airguns, dragged along by boat, shoot intense blasts of compressed air underwater and miles through the sea floor every seven to sixteen seconds, twenty-four hours per day for days to months on end.
These blasts pound through the water and miles deeper into the ocean floor to send back signals with information used to create three-dimensional images of geologic faults. From these images, oil and gas companies can identify potential drilling locations.
Flooding the Ocean
Sure, we might not hear or notice the airgun blasts from the shore and certainly not from Gainesville, but that’s not the case underwater.
Seismic airgun testing can be debilitating and even deadly to marine life. The frequency and amplification of the blasts can cause temporary and permanent hearing damage, habitat abandonment, disruption of vital behaviors and beach standings. For marine animals, sound is their sight. It’s how they feed, mate, migrate, escape danger — survive.
The low-frequency booms from the airgun are along the same frequency as the signals sent and perceived by larger whales, making them the most susceptible to direct impact from the testing. But the blasts don’t only emit low-frequency sounds; the range of sound transmissions include higher frequency components, too, which affect a range of other marine animals.
In its own draft Environmental Impact Statement report, the DOI recognizes that seismic airgun testing would cause 13.5 million disruptions to vital behaviors of marine mammals, which include feeding, breeding and calving.
It also estimates injury to 138,500 dolphins and whales over the next eight years. This count includes eight endangered species including the North Atlantic right whale. With only 361 individuals remaining in the entire ocean, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.
Nine of those whales are on the slate as expected “take” from seismic airgun surveying. “Take” doesn’t directly translate to a death but definitely includes it. As defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is the harassment, hunting, capturing or killing of any marine mammal. For the 352 right whales not counted as take, each would undergo disruption of vital behaviors five times, according to the DOI statement.
The Atlantic Ocean off the east coast is a critically important habitat for the North Atlantic right whale. In winter, they roam the warmer waters off the Florida and Georgia coasts and give birth to their calves. When spring comes around, the pods migrate north, hugging the coast all the way to the plankton-rich waters of Massachusetts and New York.
These critically endangered whales depend on this migration route for survival. It’s the only one they’ve known for centuries. Intensive whaling that began as early as 1150 AD drove the right whale to the brink of extinction. Once whaling of right whales was banned in 1935, populations of sister species rebounded at a healthy rate, but unfortunately, the North American right whale didn’t see such success.
While whaling is no longer a threat to the North American right whale, other human-imposed effects are still diminishing their population. Shipping vessel traffic and commercial fishing are the biggest hazards they face, and on top of other anthropogenic stressors such as military training and pollution, seismic airgun testing will likely only further jeopardize their species.
Playing it safe
Earlier this year, an estimated total of 2,800 dolphins washed up dead along the coast of Peru. The Peruvian government attributed the deaths to natural causes, but the 30 necropsies performed by conservationist and veterinarian, Dr. Carl Yaipén Llanos, pointed to a fishier and more probable cause. The middle ears of each dolphin had suffered fracture damage. Dr. Yaipén Llanos and his team also discovered an excessive buildup of bubbles in the dolphins’ vital organs. After further testing disproved his suspicion of a viral infection, he suggested that intense sound impact may have caused these mysterious bubbles.
The Peruvian government denies any seismic airgun testing in the area coinciding with the dolphin deaths, but local fishermen insist otherwise. Peru’s largest newspaper also reported the Peruvian Navy granted permission for seismic airgun surveying to foreign oil companies.
Even though the cause of the massive die-off cannot be explicitly traced to the surveying, the necropsies — along with other evidence scientists have collected — certainly put it in the spotlight as a possibility.
The Atlantic coast is safe from offshore drilling for now, or at least until 2017. Rebecca Marques, the South Florida organizer for Oceana, shares the international ocean conservation group’s view on seismic airgun surveying and is advocating to “keep dangerous oil and gas exploration off our coasts and instead focus on developing renewable energy.”
And what about the humans?
The seismic blasts are not only dangerous to larger marine mammals —
they impact fish health and populations, too. Any deleterious effect on fish health directly translates to concern for coastal economies.
According to the environmental impact statement, the seven states residing in the proposed testing area are home to 108 fishing communities that may be affected by “acoustic sound sources, vessel traffic and vessel exclusion zones, seafloor disturbance and accidental fuel spills.” Many fishing communities located where seismic airgun testing has taken place have witnessed dislocated and depleted fish stocks as a result of “acoustic sound sources.”
The Atlantic coast harbors an $11 billion-plus fishing industry, which supports more than 200,000 jobs. Effects from testing would undoubtedly impact coastal economies from Delaware to Florida.
“As native Floridians we live constantly surrounded by our oceans. It is part of who we are, what we do, and why we stay here,” Marques said. “For many it is also how we survive.”
How to speak whale, or at least for them
One alternative, mandatory to all environmental impact statements, is the “No Action Alternative,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It takes a precautionary approach and would prohibit all geological and geophysical activities related to oil and gas exploration in this particular zone of the Atlantic Ocean but still permit, on a case-by-case basis, research and development for offshore renewable energy.
The DOI will make its final decision in the beginning of 2013, which is coming up fast. If the proposal clears, oil and gas companies could start up testing as early as next year. Until then, the only voice the whales have is ours.
The main petition against seismic airgun testing is a photo petition on Facebook. However, you can also take more direct action by writing to Secretary Ken Salazar of the DOI. Calling or even sending a quick note to your state senators and representatives can help greatly. For Florida residents, contact Senator Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio, and your district representative here.