Speaking Out Against Seismic Blasting
The North Carolina Coastal Federation opposes seismic blasting because of its negative effects on fish and marine mammals and the potential barriers they pose to ocean access for recreational and commercial fisheries.
Dec. 11, 2018
Leading environmental groups sued the federal government today to prevent seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. This extremely loud and dangerous process, which is used to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean’s surface, is the first step toward offshore drilling. If allowed, seismic airgun blasting would harm marine life, including whales, dolphins, fish and zooplankton – the foundation of the ocean food web.
The lawsuit, filed in South Carolina, claims that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) in late November. Those permits authorize five companies to harm or harass marine mammals while conducting seismic airgun blasting in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Cape May, New Jersey to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The government has estimated that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could harass or harm marine mammals like dolphins and whales – which depend on sound to feed, mate and communicate – hundreds of thousands of times. Seismic airgun blasting would also jeopardize the iconic North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species, according to 28 leading right whale experts.
“Seismic testing and offshore drilling are incompatible with our coast in North Carolina,” said Todd Miller, executive director at North Carolina Coastal Federation. “There’s never a window that would be a good time for seismic testing to happen. Studies show that seismic affects the behaviors of marine mammals, fish and zooplankton and seismic is harmful for fisheries. And on top of all that, it’s a precursor to offshore drilling which is strongly opposed here in North Carolina.”
Nov. 30, 2018
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) granted incidental harassment authorizations (IHAs) to five companies that submitted applications to conduct geophysical surveys along the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. The NMFS is required to review the applications in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and provide companies with a suite of monitoring and mitigation requirements. An IHA essentially grants these companies the ability to unintentionally “harass, hunt, capture, or kill” a small number of marine mammals.
The North Carolina Coastal Federation is concerned that the continuous and cumulative air gun blasting associated with seismic testing surveys will negatively impact marine mammals. Recent studies indicate that marine mammals are likely to suffer from communication disruptions and behavioral disturbance resulting in stranding and even death. Studies have also shown that seismic activity can dramatically decrease the abundance of zooplankton, which is a key organism in the marine food web and a main source of food for fish and baleen whales.
The federation has been consistently concerned with seismic activity along the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. Since late 2015, the federation has been submitting its own and signing on to comment letters opposing seismic activity and stating its concern for marine life. Additionally, Gov. Cooper recently declared his opposition to the decision made by NMFS to grant IHAs, reiterating his opposition to offshore drilling.
July 21, 2017
On July 20, 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper announced at Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach that he is strongly opposed to offshore oil drilling and seismic blasting. The next day, his office and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) submitted comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service about why they are opposed to seismic blasting because of the harm it would cause to marine mammals. Thank you to everyone who also submitted individual comments.
June 6, 2017
The companies whose permits were denied by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) successfully challenged the denials in May 2017 now that offshore oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic could be back on the table. The federation and other groups tried to intervene earlier in May; the Southern Environmental Law Center had filed a motion on behalf of the groups to try to prevent the companies from challenging. These permits are now pending. The federation continues to advocate against seismic blasting and offshore oil and gas exploration.
On Jan. 6, 2017, BOEM had formally denied the six pending permits for conducting seismic surveys off the Atlantic coast. The bureau cited the potential harm that these surveys might cause to marine life as one of their reasons for denying the permits. It also said the ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic that the Obama administration announced in December influenced its decision.
As a result of this successful challenge, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a public notice (PN) for comment on seismic surveys on June 6, 2017. The PN describes the process, the potential impacts to marine mammals and provides information on each of the five companies who have applied for permits and potential mitigation of the expected impacts. The North Carolina Coastal Federation is working with a coalition of environmental groups to inform the public of this ill advised action and will continue to oppose oil and gas development off of North Carolina’s coast. Read the PN.
What is a seismic survey?
Seismic surveys, commonly referred to as seismic testing, are the first step in planning for offshore drilling. They involve the use of air guns to send sonic waves toward the ocean floor to gauge the depth, location and structure of oil and gas beneath the surface. Because sound travels faster through water than it does through air, the sound waves would travel thousands of miles through the Atlantic. These surveys are known to disrupt behavior patterns for marine mammals, sea turtles and fish.
In March 2016, after the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) removed the Atlantic from consideration for offshore drilling for the 2017-2022 planning period, seismic surveys were still on the table. Several different companies had applied for permits to perform these surveys off the Atlantic coast.
The federation and other opponents of seismic surveys were waiting to see if BOEM would issue final permits. It denied the permits, but the companies successfully challenged that denial following the 2017 executive order that put offshore oil and gas exploration back into consideration. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) had been considering whether or not to issue authorization for seismic survey ships to harm or harass federally protected marine mammals.
The BOEM’s 2014 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on seismic surveys noted the negative effects the noise has on marine animals. Some highlights include:
- Seismic surveys could affect communication and hunting behaviors of more than one million dolphins.
- An estimated 138,000 protected marine mammals could be harmed because of seismic surveys, including nine of the remaining 500 North Atlantic right whales.
- According to various scientific research studies, catch rates for several fish species declined in the immediate days following a seismic survey. One study on rockfish showed that hook-and-line catch rates decreased by 52 percent in areas where seismic surveys were occurring.
Despite acknowledging the negative effects of seismic surveys on marine animals, BOEM’s EIS laid out a path for moving forward with the surveys and attempting to mitigate their effects on marine animals. The federation requested in June 2016 that BOEM consider additional scientific evidence that demonstrates the harm noise from seismic surveys causes to fish, scallops and other marine life.
- View the information sheet.
- Gov. Cooper’s and Secretary Regan’s comment letters to the National Marine Fisheries Service (July 2017)
- The National Marine Fisheries Service’s public notice for comment on seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean (June 2017)
- The federation’s letter to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council asking for support in its requests of BOEM and NMFS (June 2016)
- The federation’s comment letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service requesting that it meets with BOEM to discuss the potential risks fish face because of seismic surveys (June 2016)
- The federation’s comment letter to BOEM on the danger seismic surveys pose to fish (June 2016)
- The federation’s comment letter on incidental harassment authorization for geophysical surveys in the Atlantic Ocean (August 2015)
- The federation’s comment letter on seismic surveys (February 2015)
- Read articles on seismic surveys from Coastal Review Online.