New federal study outlines impacts of seismic air gun blasting in Gulf of Mexico

Oil and gas exploration would have widespread effects on marine mammals

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Seismic blasting is bad for marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Conservation advocates have long been saying that blasting the Gulf of Mexico with seismic airguns to find more oil and gas beneath the seafloor would result in unacceptable harm to marine mammals and other marine life, and a new draft environmental study by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management seems to confirm those concerns.

The study was completed under the terms of a court-ordered settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups. It shows that the blasting would have widespread impacts on marine life, including injuries to endangered sperm whales and Bryde’s whales. The draft report outlines possible mitigation measures, including closure areas where seismic blasting would be banned, and reductions in the amount of activity permissible each year.

“For years, industry has been allowed to blast away without permits, without authorizations, and without thought about how its activities are degrading the already beleaguered Gulf,” said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “This place is not a sacrifice zone. The federal government finally needs to take action once and for all and not condone this business-as-usual disregard for the health of these waters.”

Seismic exploration surveys use extensive arrays of high-powered airguns to search for oil. These generate the loudest human sounds in the ocean short of explosives. The blasts, which can effectively reach more than 250 decibels, can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding over vast distances, mask communications among whales and among dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish.

The new report finally acknowledges what environmental groups have long warned: that these sonic blasts cause harm to marine mammals. The report estimates that oil and gas seismic surveys will harm whales and dolphins with as many as 4.3 million instances of injury, including permanent hearing loss.

Prior to the lawsuit, the oil and gas industry conducted seismic surveys for decades without the permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

“Oil and gas surveys deafen and injure whales, and marine mammals shouldn’t have to endure these seismic assaults. It’s good to finally see an analysis of the airgun blasting after years of industry delays, and we really need to cut oil and gas exploration,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For the sake of our climate and sensitive marine life, we need to get the oil and gas industry out of oceans.”

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