Seismic testing put on hold while
marine impacts are reviewed
By CATHERINE KOZAK
Coastal Review Online
survey planning work in an enormous area off the southern half of the
Atlantic coast has been put on hold while federal fisheries managers
review new information about potential harm to sea turtles and marine
blasts are used to find oil and gas deposits under the ocean floor, but
some biologists say that the concussive noise can disturb feeding,
breeding and navigational behavior of protected whales and dolphins.
New research has indicated that negative effects may affect larger
numbers of animals for longer periods than previously understood.
are encouraged that both the National Marine Fisheries Service and BOEM
(the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) have taken the time to review
the new science and really gain a new understanding of the eco-system
in the Atlantic,” said Ingrid Biedron, marine biologist for Oceana, a
nonprofit group opposed to the seismic exploration.
permits accepted by BOEM are currently undergoing review by the
fisheries service, said John Filostrat, a BOEM spokesman. Incidental
Harassment Authorization, or IHA, permits must be approved by the
service before BOEM can move forward. The permits, which allow a
certain number of whales and dolphins to be harmed or killed – “takes”
is the euphemism used in federal law — each year per species, are a
critical step in approval of the seismic survey work.
they issue an IHA, then we continue our review and coordination
process,” he said. “If the IHA was denied, then BOEM denies the permit.”
Filostrat said the current pause in planning should not be regarded as a glitch.
is part of the process and we’re going through it,” he said, adding he
could not put a timeline on its anticipated completion.
required environmental review for the proposed seismic work was
finished in July 2013, but the need for additional review by the
fisheries service was triggered recently by several proposals that
would alter management rules for numerous marine species under Section
7 of the federal Endangered Species Act.
changes include designation of critical habitat for loggerhead sea
turtles; expansion of critical habitat for the north Atlantic right
whale; and adding, upgrading or removing ESA listings of the bigeye
thresher shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, common thresher shark, the
porbeagle shark, smooth hammerhead shark, humpback whale, Caribbean
electric ray, green sea turtle and dwarf seahorse.
the same time, the agency is also reviewing updated information on the
density of marine mammals in the area where the tests will be done, as
well as other recent studies about the effects of seismic noise on
“We always welcome new science,” Filostrat said.
2015 study on the bowhead whale’s response to air gun noise found that
the pulsing sounds changed the way the animals communicate but to what
extent is unknown.
to the report, the study “has shown an unexpectedly complex change in
bowhead whale calling behavior – first an increase, followed by a
plateau, and then a decrease – to perceived levels from air gun sounds.
authors of another study released last year concluded that the amount
of baseline data on seismic effects is insufficient for regulators to
reach accurate conclusions about the risks to marine life.
process for permitting surveys must take these data needs into
account,” the report said, “and be adjusted accordingly, and perhaps
even paused while such information is gathered.”
research has also shown that the numbers of estimated takes of marine
mammals in the study area stretching from Delaware to Florida– an area
about twice the size of California – is far more than BOEM had
estimated in its 2013 environmental study because it relied on outdated
information or inaccurate impact thresholds.
Scientists said in October that marine mammal takes may have been underestimated three-fold to as much as 15-fold.
take estimates for most marine mammal species cited by BOEM typically
numbered in the thousands, with bottlenose dolphins having the highest
a letter signed by 75 marine scientists sent in March to the White
House, high-volume air guns were blamed for disruptions in “activities
essential to foraging and reproduction over vast ocean areas,” and for
increasing stress and mortality for endangered whales and dolphins.
the estimated 20 million seismic shots proposed in the Atlantic, the
letter said, could also have serious effects for many years on all the
animals in the area.
surveys have been shown to displace commercial species of fish, with
the effect in some fisheries of dramatically depressing catch rates,”
the scientists wrote.
noise can interfere with breeding, cause hearing loss, degrade predator
responses, and disrupt breeding behavior and embryonic development in
2013 report noted 39 species of marine mammals within the target area,
although four species of seal and the manatee are probably not
currently in the “area of interest.”
Laws, a NOAA Fisheries biologist who works under the Marine Mammal
Protection Program, said there are five requests from different
companies for authorization from his department, three of which were
made available for public review in August.
said that new density information being reviewed will compare the take
numbers of individual species to the abundance of the overall
population. He said that he expects the review will be completed in the
first quarter of the year.
“We take it one step at a time,” he said.
next step is publishing the proposed authorizations, which will detail
the method of taking, specified activity, potential effects and
proposed mitigation. There is a 30-day comment period.
Foster-Taylor, NOAA Fisheries biologist and national Section 7
coordinator, said that as part of the proposed listings, green sea
turtles have been broken out into distinct populations within critical
habitat. Also, humpback whales in the Atlantic where the testing will
take place are proposed to be de-listed. The proposal would break the
humpback into 14 distinct populations. Of them, four would be listed as
endangered, four as threatened, and 10 would be de-listed. Another
proposal would expand critical habitat for the right whale in the
said that fisheries biologists are studying, in part, how far the
propulsive sound of the seismic blasts travel, as well as its potential
effects. The agency is going back to review the biological opinion “to
see that nothing has changed,” or to respond to new scientific
“Anytime you have sound involved, it’s complex,” she said.
measures proposed by BOEM in its 2013 report included exclusion zones,
closures of certain areas at certain times, passive acoustic monitoring
and observer programs.
who is an expert in whale acoustics, said that a lot is at stake for
marine animals in whether seismic blasting is allowed to take place in
the Atlantic. For instance, she said, the area under consideration
includes the only known calving area in the world for the north
Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain.
“Even the loss of two or three animals could endanger the health of that population,” she said.
cumulative and overlapping impacts on marine species, Biedron said,
must be considered with use of such powerful and frequent blasts in the
“We would encourage policy makers to explore alternative options,” she said.
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
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