I spent all last week at an animal communications conference in Omaha, Nebraska, and wanted to detail that in this week’s newsletter. But it was brought to my attention that our last newsletter needed some tidying up first.
The newsletter topic focused on the uncertainty around the biological impacts of seismic surveys, but the hinge-pin was a paper published in Nature that got much coverage by suggesting that seismic airgun surveys have a strong negative impact on marine zooplankton. The abstract even used the term “suggests,” which implies scientific uncertainty – but with a bias toward a definitive causal effect: “Here we present evidence that suggests seismic surveys cause significant mortality to zooplankton populations.”
The problem with the paper is that there were far too few data points to substantiate a definitive correlation between the stimulus and the evidence. This is not to say that the conclusions are false, it just means that further data are required to produce an indisputable correlation. And in the hot times we are in when many surveys are on the verge of being launched in biologically sensitive areas, everyone is on “hair trigger” alert about this.
And this may be the reason Principal Investigator Bob McCauley put the piece out “prematurely.” Getting research vessels out into the water is really expensive; so raising this issue right at the gates of a greatly expanded seismic effort could grease the wheels for institutional funding to get more data – to confirm or falsify the hypothesis.
And I hope he is successful. In our economically-driven society it has become incumbent upon those in the conservation community to prove a practice is damaging to the environment before we can put the brakes on it. From a survival standpoint this is counter-intuitive; particularly in light of the fact that those who have an economic stake in potentially damaging a living system, also have – by definition, more resources to bear on researching the impacts of their proposed practices.
“The Precautionary Principle” states that “if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking that action.” But somehow “damage to the economy” has entered into this calculus.
I was among many who took the zooplankton story and ran with it (confirming my hair-trigger status on the issue). It is clear that seismic surveys are harmful to the environment and the animals that live in it. The required “Incidental Harassment Authorizations” are a testimony to that. Just how harmful is the ongoing question.
Can we continue to damage and plunder our marine resources and habitats and expect them to recover? Will we find out the hard way? Or the harder way?
For the sake of all of us I hope Dr. McCauley has stirred up enough trouble on this issue to get his funding.