this article, an expert in the acoustics of the ocean and an
environmental advocate question whether seismic surveys off the North
Carolina coast for oil and natural gas can be done without harming
marine life or interfering with commercial and recreational fishing.
Stocker is the executive director of Ocean Conservation Research, a
nonprofit research and policy development organization in San
Francisco. He is a bio-acoustician with a dual background in
physics and biology who has studied the interaction of sound with
marine animals in the ocean since 1992.
Bayliss, the coastal advocate for the N.C. Coastal Federation in
Manteo, addresses additional impacts that a seismic operation could
have to fisheries activities and marine life.
Q. What is the extent of the issue of noise pollution in the ocean?
a real significant and growing problem, and there are a lot of sources.
In the last 50 years, from international trade and shipping, the ocean
is 10 times louder than it was. That’s all pretty much low frequency.
It’s louder because of shipping, and it does have biologic impacts. The
problem is, no baseline was taken back in 1965. As it turns out, back
in 1820, with whaling, the ocean was pretty loud as well. In 1965, it
was probably as quiet as it had ever been.
biologic noise is different. There’s acoustical niches that animals use
to communicate in. In any healthy biophony, you’ll hear some animals
using low-frequency sounds, some using high-frequency sounds, some
mid-frequency sounds. They rarely interfere with each other. They have
these acoustical channels. (Low-frequency sounds broadcast farther.)
All this biophony sounds like a well-tuned orchestra when it’s working
we’re doing with the shipping noise – that’s just broadband hash. It’s
like being next to a freeway. It’s limiting the broadcast ability for
animals at long distances. The consequences for the great whales – they
communicate at low frequencies – is they’re trying to communicate
through this acoustic smog.
9-11, according to a study of whales, for about a week, they shut down
all shipping – the cortisol levels that indicate stress went down
immediately. It was really quite clearly correlated. As soon the noise
levels went up again, the stress levels in the whales went up.
Q. Can you explain the impacts of seismic and sonar technology on marine animals?
whole ocean is an acoustic environment. Light doesn’t really work so
well under the water. So most animals are adapted to complex hearing
systems. And some just hear, and others make noises.
first sonar was developed after the Titanic. Of course, it was used in
the war, by submarines. Humans have been basically bouncing sounds
around in the ocean for less than 100 years. Whales have been bouncing
sound around for 30 million years. So they have a refined, complex
system. They can see things quite clearly.
sonar is not necessarily harmful – just an annoyance. The mid-frequency
sonar associated with these mass strandings is a pretty nasty sound.
What’s really a problem is offshore fossil fuel development. The
surveys are these low-frequency pulses. Arguably, because of the
low-impulse speed, that they’re not physiologically damaging to these
animals. You can say, well it’s not killing anything, you’re not seeing
animals floating on the surface. But when they hear this rumbling all
the time, it’s like the shipping noise – it’s going to raise anxiety.
It happens in the whales; it likely happens with fish. When the animal
is in a constant state of stress, it interferes with their biological
function, with their breeding, their community. If they don’t like it,
they have to depart. Or with fish, they’ll typically shelter in place.
It’s not healthy.
Q. With regard to takings, what would be the impact of 2-D surveys on marine mammals, sea turtles and fish?
the sea turtle stuff is still ambiguous. We do know when ships are in
the area, they try to leave. We see disruptions in migration of fish.
One of the things we need to look into is that fish don’t seem to
respond to amplitude. We humans are sound-pressure sensing animals.
Some fish have that ability – they have an air bladder that responds to
pressure gradients. But most fish tend to have cilia or accelerometers
in their hearing system, which allows them to sense particle motion.
When a sound happens, it flexes the medium back and forth, almost to a
molecular level. That is one way they sense sound – proximity is more
important than amplitude in many fish.
mammals hear more the way we do. They have inner ear, cochlea,
frequency discrimination. And because of their adaptations, they have
very complex relationships to sound environments. So while we know that
dolphins use bio-sonar to sense their surroundings
and communicate with each other, we’re beginning to see evidence that
larger whales use these low frequencies to navigate. They may bounce
these sounds off of females 300 kilometers away, and they know where
Q. So this would clutter their ability to navigate?
Also, (some species of whale) are built for speed. They’re high-speed
animals and unlike the humpback whale which uses a very beautiful song
they sing, these animals pulse kind of like crickets, every 10 or 15
seconds. Well this is the same pulse width of a seismic survey. There’s
interesting evidence, from a study monitoring fin whale migration in
the Mediterranean, that found they went partway to their breeding area
and turned around. Researchers found there was a seismic survey going
on in the area. Those pulses, even though they were quieter than the
noise levels of the ships, somehow spooked these animals.
Do you know if there is a long-term biological impact from surveys
being done for a short time? For instance, do the animals leave for
beginning to see from studies done on bowhead whales in the Arctic that
there are migratory disruptions. They’re changing their vocalizations.
The North Atlantic right whale is having a really hard time. The South
Atlantic right whale, on the other hand, they’re really successful.
What’s the difference? The northern hemisphere is really industrialized
– shipping news, entanglements, there’s a lot of human interference.
The southern hemisphere – not so much.
Q. Do you have an opinion on how effective the mitigation tactics
a lot of them are like, what the heck, let’s try this out. The
1,000-meter setback, for example, yeah that’s fine and dandy, except,
as one study showed, these animals were responding to signals 150
kilometers away. It freaked them out – they did not migrate. The same
with the bowhead study. These animals were 10-15 kilometers away, and
the sounds were disrupting them. With ramp ups – the idea is if they
don’t like the sound, they’ll leave. Yeah, what if they’re feeding,
what if they’re comfortable with the area? What would happen if
somebody moved into your neighborhood and decided they were going to be
playing low-frequency boom, boom, boom all day long? We have the choice
– we call the cops.
Q. So the problem with seismic is more of a harassment, rather than an injurious thing?
The physiology is, in the longer term, if you’ve got a lot of anxiety it will compromise your immune system.
Q. What about the impacts of overlapping projects?
is one of those things that was not accounted for. Right now, there are
four Incidental Harassment Authorizations under review at NOAA
Fisheries. And we’ve paused those guys. Once reason is they’re
gargantuan. The other is they’re concurrent. For example, let’s take
this idea that this ramp-up procedure will let animals leave the
environment where they’re subjected to this. But they have another one
40 kilometers up the coast. They have no mechanism in the review to
look at concurrent assaults. They take each one at face value. What are
you doing to these animals? You’re turning their whole environment into
scrambled eggs. Let’s just say, there’s only one going on, but there’s
this shipping lane. The level B guidelines are outdated.
Q. Well what are level B guidelines?
A impacts are physiological impacts. Level B are behaviorials. It’s
disrupting feeding behavior, having them move their migration paths,
those things that have them disrupt their natural behaviors. There’s so
much evidence that behavioral impacts happen at significantly lower
levels than mitigation thresholds are set.
Q. This issue of takings, it makes it sound like they’re being killed or injured. No instances of takings by contractors.
can look through whatever end of the telescope you want to look
through. Low-impact pulses are not going to hurt an animal physically.
But the level B takes, when you have an animal whose natural behavior
is disrupted, what are the biological consequences of that? That’s what
the discussion should be. These animals are evolved to live in an
environment when they will be subjected to stresses, they need to be on
the alert. But they’re being subjected to noises that they haven’t been
Q. How can we lessen the impact of noise in the ocean?
have to look at the scale of it. There’s technology to attenuate noises
like pile driving. They’re coming up with air guns that are lower
frequency. That’s an improvement. They want to have really accurate 3-D
maps on what’s happening below the seafloor. In order to be really
accurate, they need to bang and bang and bang and bang. They want to
sell the data because it’s valuable – that’s why there are four
companies wanting to do the same thing. At what cost? These guys are
over-equipped right now.
We need to scale down. We’ve got to keep (oil and gas) in the ground if we’re going to survive on this planet.
Q. So you’re talking about a change in public policy and the regulatory process?
Yes. It’s all about making money.
Q. What are your concerns for fisheries and marine mammals with seismic surveys in the Atlantic?
companies have active permits in the Atlantic right now. The main
concern in all of this is that all these companies have overlapping
survey areas. Which means that, because they’re overlapping, they’re
going to potentially occur in the same place, and possibly at the same
time. So, I think there are two main issues. One is the access issue –
what kind of problems will we see with other industries that are
already operating in the ocean and will continue to need to operate in
the ocean during these surveys. And then what kind of impacts will
there be to marine life? A piece of it that is less studied than
impacts on marine mammals is impacts on fisheries. Other living things
in the ocean can be adversely impacted by one survey, and especially by
the eight that may happen.
Q. What is the status of the applications?
eight companies have submitted applications to BOEM to conduct
geophysical surveys of the Atlantic. They go through this long
winnowing process that basically routes them through every important
agency in the federal and state governments to figure out what these
impacts of these surveys could be. So five of these companies are
farthest along in the process.
NMFS is dealing with the main issue of this, which is marine mammals.
This is the last permit they would need – approval or denial to
authorize these companies to interact with marine mammals. Once these
decisions come from NMFS it will go back to BOEM, which will issue
Q. Is there a process for coordination between survey vessels and recreational boaters and commercial fishermen?
wouldn’t say there is a really structured process. The one process I
would say a lot of states have used to coordinate these type of uses is
the consistency determination. One piece of BOEM’s seismic permitting
process is consistency determination. So basically every state on the
East Coast should have a coastal management plan that allows states to
weigh in on any federal activity that occurs off their coast. Each
company had to go through and apply separately for a consistency
determination. All of the states said, yes, it is consistent. The
majority of the states said yes, but you have to abide by these
conditions. A lot of these conditions included specific time and area
closures, avoidance of essential fish habitat, avoidance of special
geographic ocean features like canyons.
All of these things, obviously, are really important to commercial and recreational fishermen.
thing we noticed that was glaring about North Carolina was there were
no specific details in the consistency determination for these
companies. And we think that is a big missed opportunity. We’ve been
lucky enough to work with Spectrum Geo individually, and they have been
incredibly accommodating, specifically with commercial fishing access
issues. As far as how is our state commercial fishing industry is going
to interact with surveys that they may or may not conduct. I think the
state could’ve done a much better job specifically detailing when or
when not these surveys could take place. And since they did not to the
degree that other states did, the onus is now on the individual users
to contact individual companies like Spectrum Geo.
Hemilright, who is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management
Council, as well as commercial fishermen, has completed a map specific
to the pelagic longline industry that shows when and where pelagic
long-lining happens off the coast of North Carolina. Dare County has
helped him construct that map and that map is being sent to Richie
Miller. It’s a very simplified process, but we literally had a
conversation with Richie and talked about, if these happened, how are
we going to work together to mitigate for the existing industries that
are already out there?
Q. Are there other issues fishermen have been concerned about that haven’t been addressed, or will be addressed?
think there are two issues. First is the logistical issue. Each company
typically tows survey gear that’s about 6½ miles long. And this
is behind an already 200- to 300-foot-long ship. These survey boats
obviously have exclusions, so you can not be in this usually 10-mile
area because of all this expensive gear and the possibility for
the other logistical hurdle is a little more specific – it’s just the
amount of water that they’re going to be covering, from about three
miles to 400 miles offshore. And that survey is barring any big weather
incident, will take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the
permit, they do include down days for weather, but some of these
surveys can run up to a year.
other concern, obviously, is what happens to the marine life that is
already out there. The impact to fisheries is a lot less studied.
There is one study about cephalopods about how low-frequency sound has
produced significant trauma in giant squid off Spain. It’s hard to
correlate strandings of these animals with seismic, or low-frequency
sound. But this study shows that the sound perception in invertebrates
is not very well known, even though they play such a crucial role in
the ocean ecosystem. This study proves that that there is a detrimental
and serious effect, sometimes causing mortality, in cephalopods from
low-frequency sound. Which is kind of an indicator species in the ocean
– there are a lot of species in N.C. fisheries that depend on squid and
other cephalopods to survive. I think that’s a really interesting piece
in all of this – is looking at these at how these other things in the
ocean are going to be affected.
another study that talks about bottom-going rock fish on the West
Coast, on how geophysical surveys have an effect on behavior. I think
the thing that’s difficult about fish is that the sound from air guns
is most likely to cause behavior changes in fish, not necessarily
physiological changes. But this study found there was a 52 percent
reduction in the catch-per-unit effort. And that reduction was due to a
behavior response. I think that’s really significant. I know all
species are going to be affected differently. But the point is we need
to really think about this. We don’t know how these surveys are going
to impact species other than marine mammals.
Q. How can seismic survey work be done in a responsible way?
not sure, but I’m not sure we should have eight companies surveying the
same bottom. I understand it’s proprietary data, and this is an
economic gain for these companies to survey and sell the subsequent
data. But it seems that other countries have figured out other ways to
do just one survey and sell that. Obviously, if we can reduce the
amount of times that we’re putting noise in the ocean, that would help.
I’m sure a lot of geophysical companies think differently about that.
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)