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Peru Dolphin Deaths Show What Seismic Testing Might Do

© Reuters

What will happen to marine life if the government allows seismic testing, using loud airgun blasts, to search for oil and gas deep beneath the seabed along the U.S. Atlantic coast in the next few years?

The answer may be foreshadowed by the scene in Peru, where earlier this year, hundreds of dolphin carcasses washed ashore along an 85-mile stretch of beach. While the science is not definitive, one expert, Dr. Yaipan-Llanos who has been investigating the cause of the dead dolphins and has conducted 30 necropsies, claims to have seen physiological impacts that resemble what would be expected from seismic testing for oil and gas.

Dr. Yaipan-Llanos found bubbles in the organs and tissues of the dolphin carcasses. These harmful bubbles may have been caused by the disruptive impacts of an intense sound source dislodging bubbles inside the animals or the rapid ascent of the animals toward the surface after being scared.

Alternatively, some have suggested that they could be caused by the natural breakdown of the animal’s body on the beach after death. However, the freshness of some of the carcasses sampled may rule out that theory. Another alarming finding is that the middle ears of 30 of the dolphins had fractures, an injury which could be caused by airgun blasts.  

Peruvian government officials have denied that the deaths are due to seismic testing for oil and gas or any other human-related causes, but their methodologies are being questioned by Peruvian scientists. Only two autopsies were conducted by government officials, and those dolphin carcasses were collected late in the process, making the cause of death difficult to identify.

What we do know is that seismic equipment was tested between 50 and 80 miles offshore of Peru from January 31st through February 7th and seismic surveys were conducted offshore between February 7th and April 8th.  Dr. Yaipan-Llanos first noticed the carcasses on February 7th and he collected his first samples on February 12th. Carcasses then continued to appear through mid-April. The Peruvian government report ruled out viruses, bacterial infections, pesticides or heavy metals and says that it did not find signs of trauma that would indicate seismic tests or human-related causes. But the report did not identify any cause or causes of the deaths, which remain a mystery.

This incident in Peru is unresolved, and may remain that way, but this unfortunate turn of events gives us a picture of what a mass mortality event in the U.S. could look like if seismic surveying moves forward on the Atlantic coast. Given the impacts on dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizion oil spill, it would be a shame to further threaten even more dolphins with unnecessary air gun use.

Can you imagine the headline “Hundreds of Dolphin Deaths in Atlantic May be Linked to Airgun Blasts from Seismic Testing for Oil and Gas”?

The U.S. government actually predicts that over the next eight years, 138,000 marine mammal injuries would occur from seismic testing using airguns on the Atlantic coast. Vital activities in marine mammals like feeding, calving, and breeding would be disrupted 13.5 million times. Airguns would also threaten valuable East coast fisheries, marine tourism and endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale and loggerhead sea turtle.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is currently looking into the Peruvian mass mortality of dolphins, and at the same time they are also reviewing a decision about whether to allow seismic testing for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast from Florida to Delaware. The comment period for this decision ends soon, but you can still tell BOEM to protect whales and dolphins from destructive airgun blasts: submit your comments before Monday July 2!


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