Put away your party hats, Atlantic whale-watchers. Despite the recent announcement that the waters off southeastern United States are closed to drilling, applications to send massive sonic booms throughout the region are still being considered.
The practice is called seismic airgun testing, and it is used to determine oil and gas resources below the sea floor using loud noises that can travel up to 2,500 miles underwater — potentially disrupting whales, fish, turtles, and invertebrates such as scallops and crabs.
“There’s a potential for these species to be impacted for months on end,” Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist with Oceana, told ThinkProgress.
Right now, there are eight applications to conduct seismic testing making their way through the federal permitting process. The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of NOAA, is currently considering issuing Incidental Harassment Authorizations. There will be a 30-day public comment period on the IHAs before they go back to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which will decide whether to approve the permits.
The IHA specifically looks at impacts to marine mammals, Biedron said. BOEM is required to consult with the NMFS and other agencies — such as the Department of Defense and NASA — on other impacts to fish habitats and other federal programs. But each permit application is considered separately.
“Cumulative impacts aren’t being considered,” Biedron said.
And the impacts could be significant. The North Atlantic right whale, for instance, breeds and calves exclusively off the coast of Georgia and Florida — well within the area that would be affected by seismic testing. NMFS’s own website lists “noise from industrial activities” as a threat to the North Atlantic right whale, and there are only about 350 of these 70-ton animals left in the world, according to the World Wildlife Federation.
Whales use sound to communicate with each other, find mates, find food, and stay in touch with their young.
Studies have shown that whales are not the only organisms affected by seismic testing. Sea turtles, including the endangered loggerhead, which nests on the coast of North Carolina, have shown significant response to noises, including potential displacement and behavioral changes that could significantly affect populations.
Of course, the Atlantic isn’t just home to animals we would prefer to protect. It is also home to the many species we eat, which could also be affected by the noise. Larval scallops, for instance, have shown developmental delays after being exposed to seismic pulses. Cod and haddock catches declined by 40 to 80 percent for five days over thousands of square miles after seismic testing was conducted in the Barents Sea.
The risk is unknown, but few in the fishing industry want to chance seismic testing. Some 100 communities along the coast have passed resolutions against the process.
The Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council has expressed “grave concerns” about seismic testing in the region. “We understand that these impacts are difficult to predict or quantify, but given the existing value of marine resources to the region and the nation, from the Council’s perspective the potential benefits do not appear to outweigh the risks,” the council wrote in a 2014 letter to BOEM. The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council also expressed concern. “Seismic testing will directly impact benthic ecosystems, essential fish habitat, managed species, and the fisheries which depend on them,” the council wrote in 2015.
Both groups are charged with overseeing recreational and commercial fisheries and are, like the NMFS, part of NOAA.
There’s a chance the noise of local communities could, however, end up being enough to stop the noise of seismic testing.
“We have discussed this process up and down the east coast,” Connie Gillette, a spokesperson for BOEM, told ThinkProgress.
That was the case for Atlantic drilling, which ultimately got scuttled. And for testing, even if NOAA gives a thumbs-up to the proposal, BOEM could still decline the permit.
Calls to several companies that have filed seismic testing applications went unanswered Wednesday. One company, whose application was accepted, collapsed before it was able to take advantage of the permit. Another said it could not comment on potential projects. A call to the API, the oil and gas trade group, also was not returned. API has said it is in favor of seismic testing and drilling off the Atlantic coast.