Seismic Airgun Use: A Threat to More Than Just Marine Life

Written by on April 18, 2013 in Policy & Ocean Law
Humpbacks, like this one photographed off the coast of Florida, and other whales can lose their hearing as a result of seismic airgun testing.

Humpbacks, like this one photographed off the coast of Florida, and other whales can lose their hearing as a result of seismic airgun testing. Photo credit: photo credit: MyFWC Research via photopin cc.

International ocean advocacy group Oceana released a report this week showing the threat marine life faces if plans to use seismic airguns to find offshore oil and gas continue.

Even though the U.S. Government confirmed that the testing will injure and possibly kill about 138,500 whales and dolphins, the U.S. Department of the Interior is considering allowing testing along the east coast. The area to be tested is twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida.

The process is brutal. For days to weeks at a time, a vessel tows one or more seismic airguns which shoot blasts of compressed air through the water and miles into the seafloor every ten seconds, 24 hours a day. This non-stop noise, 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine, disturbs marine mammals as well as dolphins and sea turtles and can force them to leave the area.

“Scaring whales and other animals away from important habitats can prevent them from activities like feeding, migrating or reproducing for days to weeks at a time and these reoccurring disturbances could affect populations in the long-term,” Matthew Huelsenbeck, report author and marine scientist at Oceana explained to MST in an email. “The airguns are loud enough to cause temporary and permanent hearing loss in marine mammals which depend critically on their hearing to survive.”

But for many whales, leaving the immediate area isn’t enough.

“The low frequency sound can travel thousands of miles away from the airgun source interrupting whale calls and altering their behavior at great distances,” Huelsenbeck told us. “This is especially of concern for endangered baleen whales, such as the North Atlantic right whale, humpback whale, blue whale and fin whale. Fin and humpback whales in a 100,000 square mile area stopped singing in the North Atlantic because of such noise, and bowhead whales have abandoned their habitat because of it in Alaska.”

“There are serious concerns about how the extent of this sound will impact critically endangered North Atlantic right whales,” he continued. “There are only roughly 500 North Atlantic right whales left, and these airguns could disrupt their migration, or only known calving grounds offshore Georgia and Florida. It is extremely difficult to avoid impacting these whales.”

In addition to hurting marine life, Oceana’s study revealed that more than 730,000 jobs are at risk from this process because airguns and offshore drilling threaten fisheries, tourism and local recreation.

Oceana is urging the Obama Administration to phase out the use of airguns and has launched a petition against the current testing proposals. According to Huelsenbeck, marine vibroseis “could completely phase out airguns in three to five years in U.S waters with the appropriate policies put in place.”

Marine vibroseis creates sound through vibrations and “can reduce the loudest peak noise that is generated during surveying and eliminates high frequency ‘waste sound’ which can help protect some marine mammals.”

More field tests are needed before conclusions can be drawn, but commercial testing of marine vibroseis will be conducted this year. Huelsenbeck said it’s not a perfect solution, but it “should be considered as a viable alternative to airguns.”

There are serious concerns about how the testing will impact critically endangered North Atlantic right whales - photographed near Charleston, SC.

There are serious concerns about how the testing will impact critically endangered North Atlantic right whales – photographed near Charleston, SC. Photo credit: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division via photopin cc.

To learn more, check out some of these links:

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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2 Reader Comments

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  1. Lisa Mittan says:

    The “sign the petition” link in this article doesn’t take the reader to a a signable petition. It just takes you to the white house petitions site.

  2. Emily says:

    Hi Lisa – Thanks for bringing that to my attention! It looks like the formal petition is closed, but if you’re still interested you can send a letter to the President by using this form.

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