North Atlantic right whale, one particular species threatened by seismic airgun testing. Photo credit: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division/Flickr Creative Commons
Seismic airguns (link that has graphics on how the airgun operates) are used to find oil and gas deep underneath the ocean floor. Airguns are so loud that they disturb, injure or kill marine life, harm commercial fisheries, and disrupt coastal economies. These dynamite-like blasts—which are repeated every ten seconds, 24 hours a day, for days and weeks at a time—are 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. Seismic airgun testing currently being proposed in the Atlantic will injure 138,500 whales and dolphins and disturb millions more, according to government estimates.
Yesterday, the U.S. government released a final proposal to allow the use of controversial seismic airguns to look for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean floor in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida. According to the Department of the Interior (DOI), these dynamite-like blasts are expected to injure and possibly kill large numbers of dolphins and whales along the East Coast and disturb the necessary activities of millions more.
oceana.org reports :
Seismic airguns are towed behind ships and shoot loud blasts of compressed air through the water and miles into the seabed, which reflect back information about buried oil and gas deposits. These blasts harm marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and other wildlife.
Impacts include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, and even beach strandings and death. For whales and dolphins, which rely on their hearing to find food, communicate, and reproduce, being able to hear is a life or death matter.
Airgun blasts kill fish eggs and larvae and scare away fish from important habitats. Following seismic surveys catch rates of cod and haddock declined by 40 to 80 percent for thousands of miles.
In addition to being devastating for marine life, seismic airguns are the first step toward dangerous and dirty offshore drilling with associated habitat destruction, oil spills and contribution to climate change and ocean acidification.
The Atlantic OCS Proposed Geological and Geophysical Activities Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic Planning Areas Final Programmatic can be found here.
The decision comes one week after 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.
On Wednesday, Sen. Booker (D-NJ) and eight additional U.S. Senators sent a letter to DOI Secretary Sally Jewell urging her to hold off on issuing this administrative decision until all of the best available science, including these new acoustic guidelines, can be incorporated.
“With offshore drilling in the Atlantic more than four years away, there is absolutely no justification for failing to include the best available science in this decision,” said Savitz. “Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean, and we should be doing everything we can to protect marine life from their loud blasts.”
“These devices 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. It’s as if the Obama Administration has learned nothing from the destruction that similar testing has caused off the coasts of Namibia, Australia and Madagascar.”