On Friday a group of conservation interests lead by NRDC’s Michael Jasney landed a milestone decision on airgun survey regulation in the Gulf of Mexico. Seismic airgun survey – used to find oil and gas deposits are the one of the loudest noises that humans make in the ocean. Emitting blasts of acoustical energy every 10 -15 seconds, often around the clock for weeks to months on end, these noises can be heard thousands of kilometers from their origin.
That these noises have not been better regulated up to this point is a bit of a mystery. Aside from the various guidelines of having “Marine Mammal Observers” (MMO’s) on board, and shutting down operations when whales are within a prescribed distance of the survey, most of these surveys proceed without any public oversight.
One reason this has gone on without more regulation probably has to do with the global momentum of the fossil fuel industry. This coupled with the fact that like a lot of stuff that happens out at sea it has been beyond the watch of the public.
Another reason is that the impacts of the practice seem ambiguous – at least where you might expect to see clear evidence of biological disruption. Unlike with the earlier industry practice of throwing sticks of dynamite over the transom fish don’t all float up on the surface dead following a survey operation. And while feeding disruptions have been observed in the Gulf’s resident sperm whales, they have not departed their habitat despite continuous surveys in the area.
There is even the argument that at a distance the surveys sound like waves breaking on the shore, which contain significantly higher energy but does not bother marine animals. On the other hand migratory patterns of fin whales were disrupted by seismic surveys that were 285 km away from the whales, and there are ongoing conflicts in Norway and in the Caribbean between Fishing industry and seismic surveyors.
It stands to reason than any extra banging around the sea would be disruptive – even if not immediately obvious. Hopefully this legal precedent will enlighten the public to yet another externalized cost of our fossil fuel use, and open up the way for more precaution when geophysical companies survey new and ongoing hydrocarbon fields.