Silence is Golden: SSL Opposes Seismic Surveys in the Atlantic Ocean

In 1953, Jacques Cousteau referred to our oceans as “the silent world.”  While that may have been the case around mid-century, the situation today is just the opposite.  According to Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University, “If you could lay down under the shipping lanes at Great South Channel (off Cape Cod) and spend the day there, you would get the impression of being on the tarmac at Logan Airport.”  For marine mammals, this amount of noise pollution produces shocking effects.

Marine mammals have evolved over millions of years to thrive in our oceans.  Until recently, the marine environment has been characterized by a certain class and degree of natural sounds.  Marine mammals evolved against this background, developing acute hearing, communication skills, and echo-location abilities attuned to natural sound levels.  In the past several decades, we have cranked up the volume to deafening levels.  For instance, low-frequency background noise in the ocean has increased 32-fold since the 1950’s.  This is hardly surprising:  Since 1950, the worldwide commercial fleet has also grown exponentially, in terms of number of vessels and especially in terms of gross tonnage.  When we add offshore drilling and mining to the mix, marine habitats have suddenly become host to a racket of block-party proportions.

For marine mammals, this noise has tragic consequences.  The impacts include:

  • Drowning out social communications used to find mates or identify predators;
  • Temporary and permanent hearing loss or impairment;
  • Displacement from preferred habitat;
  • Disruption of feeding, breeding, and nursing;
  • Mass strandings; and
  • Death and serious injury from hemorrhaging and tissue trauma
One of twelve sperm whales that beached and died on Karekare beach in New Zealand in late 2003. Credit: iStockphoto

One of twelve sperm whales that beached and died on Karekare beach in New Zealand in late 2003. Credit: iStockphoto

With this in mind, SSL has taken a firm stand against proposed seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean.  In comments submitted to NMFS (available here: SSL Comments in Response to Applications for Incidental Harassment Authorization Re Geophysical Survey Activity Atlantic Ocean_Final_2), SSL urged the agency to reject applications by oil and gas companies seeking permission to “incidentally harass” marine mammals while conducting seismic surveys.

Not only would these “surveys” — a dangerous euphemism if one ever existed — wreak havoc on cetaceans and other marine life, they would also directly violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s (MMPA) prohibition against anything beyond “negligible impact.”  Pursuant to Sections 101(a)(5)(A) and (D) of the MMPA, the Secretary of Commerce may allow the incidental, but not intentional, take of small numbers of marine mammals.  To permit incidental take, NMFS must find that proposed take will have only a “negligible impact” on the species or stocks. “Negligible impact” is defined in 50 CFR 216.103 as “an impact resulting from the specified activity that cannot be reasonably expected to, and is not reasonably likely to, adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival.”

Here, all the evidence suggests that the contemplated “surveys”  —  involving the incessant firing of huge arrays of underwater air guns — will have far more than a “negligible impact.”  For threatened and endangered species such as the fin whale, humpback whale, North Atlantic right whale, sei whale, sperm whale, and West Indian manatee, these surveys would push them one step closer to extinction.  For the North Atlantic right whale, the situation is particularly dire.  This species numbers only 455 individuals.  As NMFS has acknowledged, “the loss of even a single individual [North Atlantic right whale] may contribute to the extinction of the species.”  See 69 Fed. Reg. 30,857, 30,858 (June 1, 2004); see also 73 Fed. Reg. 60,173, 60,173 (Oct. 10, 2008); 72 Fed. Reg. 34,632, 34,632 (June 25, 2007); 66 Fed. Reg. 50,390, 50,392 (Oct. 3, 2001).

Of course, the exploratory surveys would be but a prelude to drilling.  The ultimate goal (extraction) would simply increase the pressure on these species, all while exacerbating climate change.

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