An article in today's New York Times science section details an effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map the effects of human-generated noise in the ocean. Whether it's the drone of commercial shipping or the deafening blasts of seismic air guns, sounds that can travel for hundreds of miles, this noise has been on the rise for decades. For animals that depend on sound as their primary means for communicating or finding prey, this increasingly cacaphonous environment can have devastating consequences
The article articulates well the dangers posed to the ocean's inhabitants by an increasingly noisy ocean:
Sea mammals evolved sharp hearing to take advantage of sound’s reach and to compensate for poor visibility. The heads of whales and dolphins are mazes of resonant chambers and acoustic lenses that give the animals not only extraordinary hearing but complex voices they use to communicate.
In recent decades, humans have added raucous clatter to the primal chorus. Mr. Bahtiarian noted that the noise of a typical cargo vessel could rival that of a jet. Even louder, he added, are air guns fired near the surface from ships used in oil and gas exploration. Their waves radiate downward and penetrate deep into the seabed, helping oil companies locate hidden pockets of hydrocarbons.
Marine biologists have linked the human noises to reductions in mammalian vocalization, which suggests declines in foraging and breeding.
The sorts of air gun tests described above are currently being proposed for waters spanning from Delaware to Florida to search for oil and gas deposits. The Department of the Interior which is reviewing the proposal and will issue its decision sometime next year, estimates that those tests would injure 138,500 whales and dolphins.
In this case “injuring” often means literally deafening the animals. For whales and dolphins that use sound as the primary means to find mates, find food, and communicate, such as the North Atlantic right whale (of which there are an estimated 361 left on the planet) going deaf is equivalent to a death sentence.
The tests could also wreak havoc on the area's $12 billion fishing industry. Similar tests elsewhere have resulted in drops in catches of cod and haddock from 40 to 80 percent after the use of just a single airgun array.
Yesterday the California Coastal Commission rejected a proposal by Pacific Gas and Electric to conduct high-energy seismic testing in the ocean surrounding the Diablo Canyon Power Plant near Morro Bay, CA, citing the unacceptable harm such testing would visit upon marine life. The proposal faced massive opposition from a wide coalition of conservation organizations like Oceana and commercial and recreational fishing interests concerned about impacts to fisheries and marine wildlife. This is an important precedent and one that the Department of the Interior should take seriously as it mulls whether to open an enormous expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, from Delaware to Florida, to seismic airgun testing to search for oil and gas deposits.
As initially proposed by Pacific Gas and Electric, the surveys would have entailed blasting 250-decibel pulses of compressed air at the seafloor every fifteen seconds for 9 days. Before the ruling, Pacific Gas and Electric warned that scuba divers in the area could be in danger from the airgun blasts, to say nothing of the fish and marine mammals unfortunate enough to be caught near the testing area. Conservationists and fishermen were concerned that the proposal would damage marine life in the recently designated marine protected areas.
"The proposed tests posed an unacceptable threat to a wide suite of critically important marine life including endangered whales, not to mention untold damage throughout the ocean food chain" said Geoff Shester, Oceana California Program Director after the ruling. "The Commisson’s decision sends a strong signal that this type of seismic testing is simply incompatible with the protection of valuable marine resources."
But the rejected Diablo Canyon proposal pales in comparison to what is currently being planned in the Atlantic where, by the federal government’s own estimate, 138,500 whales and dolphins would be injured by seismic airgun testing for fossil fuels. The Atlantic plan has drawn the hackles of more than just environmentalists. The fishing community is rightfully concerned about the effect such testing would have on their $12 billion industry, having seen fish stocks vanish elsewhere seismic testing has taken place.
All of this just to prolong the dubious legacy of offshore drilling. As Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless wrote in a Politico op-ed, ramped up domestic production of fossil fuels will not lead to cheaper prices at the pump (gas prices are set on the global market).
California made the right decision. Let the Department of the Interior know you want them to make the right decision too. Add your photo to our facebook petition and spread the word.
Today Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless wrote an op-ed in USA Today, "A Deaf Whale is a Dead Whale", about seismic airgun testing. As you may know by now, the Department of the Interior is currently reviewing a proposal to search for oil and gas deposits in a huge expanse of the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Delaware to Florida, using seismic airgun arrays.
Andy explains the brutal physics of the operation, which, if approved could wreak havoc on the ocean ecosystem, injuring an estimated 138,500 whales and dolphins:
In seismic airgun testing, a ship tows a seismic airgun, which shoots extremely loud blasts of compressed air through the ocean and miles under the seafloor to help locate oil and gas deposits. These airguns must be incredibly powerful in order to penetrate the water and the earth's crust and then bounce all the way back up to the surface. In fact, the sound generated by seismic airguns is 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine.
All this, he says, while alternatives remain untapped that are both enviromentally and economically more sound (no pun intended).
Using seismic airguns to explore for oil and gas is a destructive step in the wrong direction for ocean-based energy. It is bad for whales and dolphins, fisheries and our economy. We have much better options for energy development in the Atlantic Ocean such as offshore wind, which could supply well over 50% of the East Coast with reliable, clean electricity. Additionally, offshore wind exploration is much less damaging than exploration for oil, and its development will create three times more jobs and power 26 million more homes.
Help Oceana fight this proposal. Add your photo to our facebook petition and spread the word.
Sometime early next year the Department of the Interior will decide whether to approve seismic airgun testing to search for oil and gas deposits in a wide swath of ocean, from Delaware to Florida. If the Department goes ahead with the proposal, by their own conservative estimates, 138,500 whales and dolphins will be injured as a result.
Seismic airguns arrays work by discharging compressed air with dynamite-like intensity into the water column at 10 second intervals around the clock, for weeks on end. For marine mammals nearby the sound is literally deafening—and for animals that crucially rely on sound to navigate, find food and communicate, going deaf is tantamount to a death sentence.
But seismic airgun testing won’t only be detrimental to those below the water. The huge expanse of ocean where testing will take place is already home to a $12 billion fishing industry that employs 200,000 men and women. These fishermen are scared, and with good reason. Cod and haddock fisheries have seen catch plummet 40 to 80 percent after the use of a single airgun array and fishermen in Norway have had to seek compensation for a drop in catch in the wake of testing.
“It's a disaster waiting to happen,” said actress, environmentalist and Oceana donor Victoria Principal. Principal is supporting Oceana’s efforts to prevent seismic testing in the Atlantic, including the launch, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, of a brand new Facebook application, where you can add your photo to sign our petition to the Department of the Interior.
As Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck recently told the New York Times about the proposal, “If they receive an environmental impact statement that says ‘go for it,’ they could start in 2013. This is coming down to the wire.”
If you are on Facebook, I encourage you to add your photo to our petition, and please spread the word.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana
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!
In the last three months, more than 3,000 dolphins have washed ashore in Peru, most likely due to offshore oil exploration. Oil companies in the region often use sonar or acoustic soundings to detect oil beneath the floor of the sea, and dolphins and whales can be affected because of their sensitivity to sound.
Toothed whales, including dolphins and porpoises, have evolved to be able to echolocate. Instead of having two nostrils like other mammals and baleen whales, toothed whales have only one which is used as their blowhole. A whale emits squeaks and whistles from its blowhole, and the sounds bounce off objects in the water, providing an echo. The other nostril has developed into a fatty tissue known as the melon, which is used to receive and focus the returning echoes.
Hearing is considered to be whales’ most important sense, used not only for navigating but also for feeding, bonding with offspring, and finding mates. Noise pollution cause changes in calling behavior, but can also cause whales to change their diving habits which can result in “the bends,” when nitrogen bubbles get trapped in the body.
Sonar can be extremely loud (imagine the sound of 2,000 jet planes), with sound waves travelling hundreds of miles through the ocean. Noise levels this high can cause fatal injuries, similar to those seen in many strandings around the world. As the world’s oceans become noisier, they also become more dangerous for whales and dolphins.