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Environment: Activists ramp up campaign against seismic airguns

Oil-probing technology could harm marine mammals, affect fisheries

Oceana projection on National Postal Museum (Credit: Oceana/Melissa Forsyth)

Oceana projection on National Postal Museum (Credit: Oceana/Melissa Forsyth)

Staff Report

FRISCO — Tourism and fishing-dependent communities along the East Coast of the U.S. are banding together to voice concerns about seismic airgun testing. According to Oceana, an ocean conservation group, 110 local elected officials and 155 conservation and animal welfare organizations all say the use of airguns to conduct these seismic tests threatens fish populations and profitable fisheries.

Six coastal towns have also passed local resolutions opposing the use of airguns. (Cocoa Beach, FL, Carolina Beach, NC, Caswell Beach, NC, Nags Head, NC, Bradley Beach, NJ and Red Bank, NJ). The loud and constant undersea thumping may decrease the catch rates of certain fisheries, potentially threatening a billion-dollar industry that supports thousands of jobs.

At issue is the use of loud acoustic devices that help energy companies probe for oil beneath the seafloor. Federal officials recently adopted a final proposal that would allow the use of this controversial technology in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida.

Environmental studies suggests the undersea blasts could injure or kill thousands of marine mammals. 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.

The federal plan does include mitigation measures aimed at reducing impacts, including the use of trained observers to report marine mammal activity, but environmentalists say that’s not enough.

“Seismic airgun testing is the first step towards deep-water drilling, which would inevitably bring the Atlantic coast one step closer to the same practice that brought us the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster,” the groups wrote in a statement.

“While proposed seismic airgun testing would span from Delaware to Florida, an oil spill the size of that which flowed from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig would harm sea life, ecosystems, fisheries and coastal economies along the entire East Coast. Furthermore, expanding offshore drilling to the Atlantic will only deepen our dependence on oil and gas, and worsen the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.”

“When it comes to offshore drilling in the U.S. one overarching theme stands out – drill, spill, repeat,” said Claire Douglass, campaign director at Oceana. “Offshore drilling is no safer than it was four year ago, yet President Obama is taking steps to expand this dirty and dangerous industry to the Atlantic. If the President would simply stop to listen, he would hear that coastal communities have no interest in turning the East Coast into a blast zone.”

In commemoration of the four-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, Oceana conducted a three-day nighttime visual projection demonstration on government buildings in Washington, D.C. The image series, which runs through Wednesday night, calls on President Obama to stop offshore drilling in the Atlantic before it starts.

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 ten seconds, for days to weeks at a time. Seismic airguns are loud enough to kill small animals 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.

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. Sen. 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, can be incorporated.

Oceana has also delivered more than 100,000 petitions opposing seismic airguns to the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, as well as approximately 50 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, also called on President Obama to stop the use of seismic airguns last year.

 

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