Agreement protects Gulf of Mexico marine mammals

Feds, oil companies agree to some limits on seismic airgun testing


Marine mammals like coastal bottlenose dolphins will get some relief from seismic airgun blasting in the Gulf of Mexico. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Whales, dophins and other marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico will enjoy a little more peace and quiet under a new agreement that limits seismic airgun testing.

Under the deal, oil companies and the federal government will make some biologically important areas off-limits to testing. The agreement will also expand protection to additional at-risk species, and require the use of listening detection devices to better ensure surveys do not injure endangered sperm whales.

The agreement came as conservation groups were gearing up for a legal battle to prevent more harm to marine mammals in an area that’s already hammered by energy development.

The seismic airgun testing is used to survey the ocean floor for potential oil and gas deposits. Research the past several years has increasingly shown that the very loud sounds have a very negative impact on aquatic species with sensitive hearing. In some cases, the loud noise can result in a loss of hearing, and some biologists think the practice causes marine mammal strandings.

The arrays of  airguns release intense blasts of compressed air into the water every 10-12 seconds, for weeks or months at a time. The noise they produce is almost as intense as dynamite, which airguns replaced in the mid-1950s. Each year industry routinely conducts dozens of “seismic” exploration surveys in the northern Gulf, one of the most highly prospected bodies of water on the planet.

Conservation advocates have said that the surveys are often duplicative, as several companies often test the same area. They’ve suggested that there should be better data sharing to avoid that repetition.

“Today’s agreement is a landmark for marine mammal protection in the Gulf,” said Michael Jasny, director of Natural Resource Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “For years this problem has languished, even as the threat posed by the industry’s widespread, disruptive activity has become clearer and clearer.”

“These super-loud airblasts hurt whales and dolphins so we’re glad to know the oil industry and federal government will take important steps to protect these vulnerable animals,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The seismic surveys sound like an underwater explosion, causing deafness and stress that can disrupt whales’ behaviors and even lead to strandings.”

The conservation groups’ lawsuit in 2010 asserted that the Interior Department failed to satisfy basic requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act in permitting seismic exploration in the Gulf. The lawsuit also said the federal government never prepared a full environmental study, as required by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Last week’s agreement, which must be approved by the district court, extends substantial new protections to the region’s vulnerable whale and dolphin populations while environmental review is completed.

Whales, dolphins and other ocean species depend on sound to feed, mate, navigate, maintain social bonds, and undertake other activities essential to their survival. Airgun noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, destroying their capacity to communicate and breed. It has been shown to drive whales to go silent, abandon their habitat and cease foraging, again over larger areas of ocean; closer in, it can cause hearing loss, injury and potentially death.

The industry’s airgun surveys are known to affect marine mammal populations within the spill zone of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. These populations include the Gulf’s coastal bottlenose dolphins, which have undergone a severe die-off since the spill; its resident population of Bryde’s whales, of which fewer than 50 individuals are believed to remain; and its small population of sperm whales, whose nursery in Mississippi Canyon was ground zero for the spill.

In 2009 an Interior Department study found that Gulf sperm whales subjected to even moderate amounts of airgun noise appeared to lose almost 20 percent of their foraging ability — a result that could help explain why the population hasn’t recovered from whaling.

“The BP drilling disaster provided graphic images of oiled marine mammal carcasses, delivering tragic proof of the harm oil companies can do to Gulf wildlife by cutting corners,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Gulf Restoration Network, which was represented by Earthjustice in the litigation. “This agreement won’t magically make drilling safer, but it will increase the chances that our amazing whales and dolphins can continue to recover. I think the dolphins are doing backflips today.”

“The settlement not only secures new protections for whales and dolphins harmed by deafening airguns, but also establishes a process for investigating alternatives to airgun surveys,” said Ellen Medlin, an associate attorney with the Sierra Club. “As a result, the settlement not only delivers immediate benefits for Gulf marine mammals, but also takes the first step towards a long-term solution.”

The settlement requires:

  • Additional protections for marine mammals while the government undertakes a programmatic environmental review of seismic exploration in the Gulf. These protections include:
    • A prohibition on airgun blasting in biologically important areas such as the DeSoto Canyon, which is important for sperm whales and critical to Bryde’s whales, the Gulf’s only resident population of large baleen whales;
    • A prohibition on airgun exploration in coastal waters during the main calving season for bottlenose dolphins;
    • Mandatory minimum separation distances between surveys;
    • Extension of the government’s existing mitigation measures to apply everywhere in the Gulf and to cover endangered manatees as well as whales; and
    • Mandatory use of passive acoustic listening devices to detect and avoid marine mammals during times of reduced visibility.
  • A multiyear research and development project, to be undertaken by industry, to develop and field test an alternative to airguns known as marine vibroseis that has the potential to substantially reduce many of the environmental impacts of seismic activity.
  • A Bureau of Ocean Energy Management evaluation of new standards to ensure that airgun surveys are not unnecessarily duplicative and generate the least practicable amount of sound for a given project.

The lawsuit was launched in June 2010 following the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, which spilled 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The settlement does not address any of the parties’ active litigation against the Department of the Interior challenging a series of oil and gas lease sales in the region.

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