The outcry of opposition grows following the Obama administration’s decision earlier this month to authorize the use of seismic airguns that make dynamite-like blasts to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean floor in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida. Two congressional letters, one from Maryland, led by U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and the other led by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA) representing Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, were sent to the President today, calling on him to prevent such testing, which they say is “incredibly harmful to marine mammals and fisheries in the region and the first major step towards opening the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling.”
On July 18, only hours after the decision was announced, 11 Members of Congress from Florida, including Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), sent a letter to President Obama stating, “we urge you to reconsider this proposal and refrain from permitting seismic air gun testing off the coast of Florida.” A similar letter was sent by Delaware’s only Representative John Carney on July 3.
“The President’s decision to allow seismic blasting in the Atlantic has only fueled the fire of opposition,” said Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass. “This is no longer just a debate over the risks and benefits of seismic airguns, it’s a fight to protect the East Coast and the marine life, people and communities that call it home.”
Oceana believes that the local opposition to seismic airguns could not be more evident. Eighteen coastal towns have already passed local resolutions opposing or voicing concern with their use (Cape Canaveral, FL, Cocoa Beach, FL, St. Augustine, FL, St. Petersburg, FL, Carolina Beach, NC, Caswell Beach, NC, Kill Devil Hills, NC, Manteo, NC, Nags Head, NC, Oak Island, NC, Southport, NC, St. James, NC, Sunset Beach, NC, Topsail Beach, NC, Edisto Beach, SC, Beachwood, NJ, Bradley Beach, NJ and Red Bank, NJ). Additionally, 78 local elected officials and 160 conservation and animal welfare organizations, as well as The Billfish Foundation, The International Game Fish Association and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, have all publically opposed their use. Oceana has also delivered more than 100,000 petitions opposing seismic airguns to the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
“The Obama administration seems to be ignoring the voices from the frontline,” said Douglass. “Anyone that could possibly be impacted is speaking out against turning the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone, including Members of Congress, scientists, coastal communities, local elected officials, citizens, conservation and animal welfare organizations, and commercial and recreational fishing groups.”
Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean, each 100,000 times more intense than what one would experience if standing near a jet engine. The dynamite-like blasts occur every 10 seconds, for days to weeks at a time. Seismic airguns are loud enough to kill small organisms like fish eggs and larvae at close ranges and can disrupt the behavior of large animals like whales and dolphins from up to 100 miles away.
Impacts to marine mammals from seismic airgun blasts can include temporary or permanent hearing loss, disruption of vital behaviors like communicating, feeding, mating, calving and migrating, and masking of biologically important sounds. According to the Department of the Interior (DOI), these dynamite-like blasts could injure and possibly kill up to 138,200 marine mammals, while disrupting the necessary activities of millions more. Similar testing off the coasts of Namibia and Australia has resulted in declines in tuna catch and decreased productivity of the scallop fishery.
One species of particular concern is the North Atlantic right whale, the rarest large whale species, of which there are only approximately 500 left worldwide. Acoustic data from Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program recently found that right whales off the Virginia coast are in the path of proposed seismic airgun use year-round.
An Oceana report released last year outlines the threats of seismic airgun use and offshore drilling to marine life and coastal economies along the East Coast, including the potential danger to commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as tourism and coastal recreation, which puts more than 730,000 jobs at risk in the blast zone.
In February, more than 100 scientists called on President Obama and his administration to wait on new acoustic guidelines for marine mammals, which are currently in development by the National Marine Fisheries Service. These guidelines are 15 years in the making and aim to provide a better understanding of how marine mammals are impacted by varying levels of manmade sound, as well as demonstrate the measures that are needed to protect them. U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and eight additional U.S. Senators also sent a letter to DOI Secretary Sally Jewell urging her to hold off on issuing the recent administrative decision until all of the best available science, including these new acoustic guidelines, could be incorporated.
In comments to DOI, Oceana has argued that the federal government has not developed adequate closure areas to protect the migratory corridor and nursery of the right whale and has failed to fully consider safer alternative technologies such as marine vibroseis, which is quieter than seismic airguns and may be less harmful to marine mammals. Oceana believes that the federal government should reinitiate the environmental review process to include the best available science before determining whether to move forward with permitting this dangerous activity off the East Coast.
For more information about Oceana’s efforts, please visit www.Oceana.org/Seismic.