Airgun UW movie

Seismic airgun bubble pulse and oscillation:

Oil and Gas exploration implicated in dolphin strandings

2012 Gulf Dolphin Samples - NMFS Photo

Over 675 dolphins have been found dead along the Florida to Texas Gulf Coast since February 2010. Initially people suspected that the BP oil spill and dispersant use might be to blame. A report from NOAA corroborates this with a finding that some 32 live dolphins show signs of chemical stress with liver and lung damage, and other metabolic compromises.

But reports from other research do not show chemical damage, and some focus has shifted over to acoustical exploration for oil and gas. The concern for acoustical trauma has prompted the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to restrict seismic exploration off Louisiana until May, when the dolphin calving season ends.

2012 Peru Dolphin Strandings

Heretofore there have been only loose correlations between seismic exploration and marine mammal strandings, but the tragic strandings of 2000-3000 dolphins this year in Peru has implicated acoustical surveys for oil and gas off Peru’s coast.

It could be that new technologies are being used for the surveys, or that the cumulative stresses of chemical pollution, depleted food sources, and acoustical trauma are causing a rise in strandings world-wide.

Whatever the cause(s), we can be sure that our growing thirst for fossil fuel plays some role in these tragedies.

Noise impacts on fish and invertebrates workshop

I spent last week in San Diego attending a workshop sponsored by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on the impacts of human generated noise on marine fish and invertebrates. Having watched the field of ocean noise impacts roll slowly forward in fits and starts for 20 years, this workshop is really a breath of fresh air (or a gulp of fresh water).

Most of what has driven the ‘noise impacts’ discussion over the years has been concern for marine mammals – both from regulations such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, and from the concerns of the public for the critters that are called “marine charismatic megafauna” in the conservation business.

Of course the ocean is much more than a menagerie of iconic animals; it also includes a vast portion of the biota – from the simplest bacteria and archea to the most complex communities of fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals – upon which all life on earth depends.

We have afforded a modicum of protection for some members of this menagerie with regulations because they inspire us or feed us. But our regulatory frameworks do not protect all of the animals which are impacted by noise and that make up the web of ocean life.

This is why the BOEM workshop was so exceptional. It brought together many of the world’s experts on marine bioacoustics to spend a few days digging down into our concerns and understandings about the impacts of noise on the less charismatic, but nonetheless equally important members of the animal kingdom found in the sea.

Giant squid beached coincident to seismic surveys

Giant squid beached coincident to seismic surveys

BOEM’s objective falls under the recent “ecosystem based management practices” advanced by NOAA Director Jane Lubchenko “to make non-arbitrary management decisions that are scientifically informed.” Our objective as attendees was to form a basis of understanding and inquiry that informs BOEM about impacts of noise on the diverse species of marine fish and invertebrates.

While this meeting did not solve all of the ocean’s acoustic mysteries, it provided a substantial opening to bring biologists, acousticians, physicists, and engineers together to work toward common strategies on understanding and decreasing our acoustical impacts on marine life.

After a decade of inaction on federal ocean policy, this is really something to celebrate.

Fossil Fuel Noise in the Arctic – website launches!

If you have been anywhere within earshot of the media recently you may have noticed that the Oilmen are on a bit of a rampage. Any sustainable energy program, environmental regulation, or legal challenge that does not promote their agenda is met with apoplectic derision as a “job killer” or worse.

Oil Seeking ArmadaOne of the drivers behind this is the American Petroleum Institutes (API) strategic plan to make America the #1 global oil and gas producer by 2018. API’s president Jack Gerard aims to accomplish this by expanding fossil fuel extraction on all US coasts, rolling back environmental regulations, and defending industry subsidies.

While it may just seem like the “flow of tides” in the public sector, those of us in conservation organizations are working overtime on many fronts: “Fracking,” East Coast drilling, Eastern Gulf lease expansion, Keystone XL, California Coast horizontal drilling, Outer Continental Shelf deep-water drilling, opening up the Arctic, and of course the climate impacts of these new fossil fuel energy sources – are all in play right now.

We have been anticipating this and for that last year have been working with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on a highly interactive and informative website specifically focused on the noise impacts of oil and gas operations in the Arctic.

“Don’t be a Buckethead” refers to the acoustical masking that all of the new introduced noise of industry will impose on the highly acoustic habitat of the Arctic Ocean (remember that it is mostly dark throughout the winter, setting the evolutionary stage for some amazing bio-acoustic adaptations). This point is illustrated with a fun and quirky “Buckethead” video on the website.

While we believe that a “full court press” on hydrocarbon development is generally a bad idea, given what we do know (and don’t know) about the risks and impacts, drilling in the Arctic is completely unacceptable.

Please help us halt this foolhardy proposal. Visit the Buckethead site to learn more – or cut to the chase and sign our petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service asking them to do their job and protect the pristine Arctic Ocean from industrial compromise.

Then visit the site…

The Arctic is changing fast, and it’s going to cost us a lot

I’ve just finished reviewing a 1600 page “Draft Environmental Impact Statement” (DEIS) issued for public comments about the five year plan for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The objective of the “draft” is to provide US citizens the opportunity to chime in on how – and if – we want the US Arctic waters surveyed for oil and gas deposits.

It is particularly ironic that just as the DEIS was being issued Shell Oil began dealing with a huge oil spill off the coast of Nigeria and another spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which occurred during the same sort of exploratory drilling that is being proposed in the Arctic), and Chevron is currently dealing with yet another platform explosion off the Nigerian coast. This tragic irony is punctuated throughout the DEIS by the recurring statement that an oil spill would be “highly unlikely.”

The rosy assumptions of “negligible impacts” colors the entire DEIS; the subjective term “unlikely” is peppered throughout when addressing impacts of seismic airgun surveys, discharge of drilling “muds” and chemical waste, noise from shipping and air transport, air pollution, and noise from icebreakers. And while the “highly unlikely” oil spill is on everyone’s mind, many other adverse impacts of oil and gas exploration are not even addressed in the DEIS; for example the persistent noise of thruster-stabilized drilling platforms, underwater acoustical communications equipment, and erection of “jack-up rigs.” While these noises may not be as loud as the seismic airgun surveys addressed in the DEIS (which produce continuous series of explosions that can be heard hundreds to thousands of miles away in the ocean) they will nonetheless produce a chronic smog of noise pollution which will compromise the acoustical habitat that fish, whales, and other marine life depend on to communicate, find food, and evade predators.

It is clear that the intention of the exploration strategies proposed in the DEIS are not to “just find out what is out there,” but rather to find out where extraction operations will yield the best results. If there is one thing that is “highly unlikely,” it is that fossil fuel found in the exploration phase will remain untapped.

Clearing the way to extraction is the fundamental assumption made by issuing this exploration DEIS, and as such it is the gateway to rapid expansion of oil and gas operations in the Arctic – the impacts of which will make the proposed exploration impacts in the DEIS pale.

But there are those who argue that securing domestic energy supplies (and the millions of jobs that the American Petroleum Industry is promising us) will be worth the risks. Unfortunately the cost is extremely high. This is not just the cost to the environment, nor the cost of tax subsidies we give to the oil industry, nor the individual costs we all bear every time we drive our cars to the pump. The ultimate cost is the response of our planet to climate change. The impacts of this are most apparent is in the Arctic – with a second irony being that the receding Arctic ice cap induced by climate change is exposing ever more of the deadly treasure.

Time and time again, by way of systematic justifications of some environmental compromise or other we have been eroding the environmental health of the very habitat that we depend on for our own life support. This is evidenced by the continuous acceleration of species extinctions world-wide. This trend points to the fact that soon enough humans will find ourselves near the top of the “endangered” list – unless we begin to make broad systematic changes in the way we engage with our limited planetary habitat. Drilling in the Arctic is a bad way to start.

Some good news in improving technologies!

Perhaps one of the more salient benefits of our work on ocean noise pollution is that unlike solid and chemical pollution, when the noise goes away, it is gone. This gives us reasons for optimism, particularly as we see efforts to improve technologies and practices by a broadening base of ocean stakeholders.

The first inkling that this could happen occurred a few years back when the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) issued guidelines for the quieting of ocean vessels.

Just this year the “International Quiet Ocean Experiment” brought together scientists and stakeholders to craft a cooperative plan for understanding and mitigating the impacts of human generated noise in the ocean.

Bolt E Source Airgun

Bolt Airgun

And just this month three items came across the boards. An article in Sea Technology about Ultra Electronics Sonar Systems developments of a biomimetic sonar that uses biologically derived signals instead of synthetic or digital signals. The article examines the relative effectiveness of sperm whale echolocation clicks against synthetic signals, but it also suggests that animals would be less threatened by signals that are “natural sounding” and thus less likely to respond negatively.

Seismic Survey

Seismic Survey Array

In the same issue there is another article about the benefits of using continuous sonar signals as opposed to periodic blasts. Typical surveillance and navigation sonars kick out a blast or “ping” and waits for an echo to return off of a target. By using some advanced integration techniques the continuously active sonar can lock on to a target and track it using an equivalent amount of energy but spread over time – allowing for a decreased source level and potentially less impacts on marine life.

The third piece coming across my desk was in a local newsletter from Norwalk CT, where the seismic airgun manufacture Bolt Technologies is collaborating with Schlumberger on limiting the bandwidth and thus quieting down the collateral noise from seismic airguns. In an ideal setting the seismic signals would sound less like “bangs” and more like waves crashing, which again sounds more “natural” and should also decrease the impacts on marine life.

I spoke with John Andros with Bolt today, and while the actual product is not ready for prime time yet, they wanted to announce the project and the collaboration.

It is nice to know that some big stakeholders are taking this noise issue to heart. If we continue to move forward, pernicious ocean noise pollution could end up being “a thing of the past.”

Dust-up (and Follow-up) on seismic surveys in Juan de Fuca

Hydrothermal Vent

EcoJustice is asking for hearings about a proposed geological survey of the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents Marine Protected Area. There is some irony in conducting seismic surveys in marine protected areas, particularly an area that has been recognized as a habitat for “12 species of marine life that do not exist anywhere else.”

Sabine Jessen from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society pointedly comments “If marine animals can’t find safety in the few areas set aside for them, where will they find it?”

The article from the Canadian Times Colonists was sent to us by a colleague at NSF and can be found here.

Perhaps as informative about the issue are the comments by the mostly Canadian citizens following the article. Equal parts bluster and concern, it illustrates the need for more public understanding about the impacts of seismic surveys on marine life.

There seems to be a divide between those who believe that there is no evidence that seismic surveys harm marine animals, and those who may not have the evidence but instinctively believe that repetitive seismic impulses are inherently bad for marine life.

Many comments are in the tradition of ad-homonym attacks (which I find surprising for Canadians). The comments also do not consider the new data substantiating that seismic surveys do have biological impacts on marine mammal foraging behavior at distances greater than 10 km (Jochens, et al, 2008, Southall et. al. 2007), and have been correlated with a cessation in traditional migratory behavior at distances greater than 100km in Mediterranean Sei whales (Castellote, 2009). And of course there is the well established evidence that seismic surveys compromise fisheries.

This particular scrap is a little uncommon because the antagonists are scientists, not the usual fossil fuel industries or the military. It also illustrates the priority rift between geophysical sciences and biological sciences – and the inherent problem with scientific specialization.

The geophysicists want to know more about tectonics in this lively area full of hydrothermal vents. The area is host to unique species, perhaps because of the hydrothermal activity. Should we compromise the unique life here to find out about its tectonic structure? Or should we take a broader and longer view of the area as a unique global habitat?

Of course all of the scientific data is “important,” but if it is not considered in a larger systematic context it loses relevance.

Follow-up on the Dust-up:

Director of Acoustic Ecology Jim Cummings reviewed this issue in greater depth and reports that the survey ship did go through an Environmental Assessment with National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) which concluded that the potential impacts of the project have been well considered.

For me his most persuasive statement Is “Throwing up legal roadblocks to a carefully designed, ten-day seismic shoot is a very extreme reaction, and should be reserved for times and places where there is real danger of harm.”

A similar situation occurred a few years back when Peter Tyack and Peter Stern were attempting to conduct “controlled exposure experiments” on migrating grey whales in California.

In this case the “defense” team took issue with a calibration beacon that sent out a single-frequency signal that would hardly be detectable over the noise of the research vessel engines.

This case drove a wedge between the scientific community and the conservation community that took years to heal, and compromised the acquisition of information that would prove very useful for more important conservation efforts.

Perhaps EcoJustice is taking advantage of the irony of doing seismic testing in a marine protected area.

As in the case of scientific data, any legal precedent is “important,” but if it is not considered in a larger systematic context it loses relevance.

Jim’s article can be found here.

Report from the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans workshop

Maurice Ewing towing and airgun array

Maurice Ewing towing and airgun array

Spending the last two days in the company of geophysicists, marine mammologists, petroleum engineers and policy makers was much less grueling than I had anticipated. But the degree of collegiality was uncharacteristic of these affairs – to a point of being downright pleasant.

The purpose of the meeting was to craft a “Mitigations Practices” document for seismic airgun surveys to minimize their acoustic and behavioral impacts on marine mammals. The final product will be a synthesis of our discussions outlining recommended practices and standards for “Marine Mammal Observers,” emerging technologies, survey planning and design, and passive monitoring for marine animals.

While only four of us (out of 40) were from the environmental NGO community, it was comforting to be among a crowd of people – most of whom owe their living to fossil fuels – who were also sincerely concerned about the impacts of their industry on marine habitat. They were quite agreeable to contributing to a document wherein every line put more constraints on their work.

Of course everything must be put in some context; and while each sentence added costs to seismic surveys, with few exceptions the economic beneficiaries of these cost increases were the geophysicists, marine mammologists, and petroleum engineers in the room.

This situation was punctuated twice over the course of the workshop. On the first day it was when Jim Cummings ( delivered a paper that highlighted the behavioral impacts of seismic exploration on marine mammals – pointing out that the noise might do more that just bother or damage animals within a prescribed distance from the surveys. He pointed out that the noise also interfered with their foraging (feeding) efficiency well outside of the “safe exclusion zone” set by common mitigation practices.

On the second day things got a little hot when Dr. Lindy Weilgart (Dalhousie University) suggested that a “no action alternative” be used when the risks of environmental damage mandated that surveys not take place.

So back to the context: While we in the environmental NGO community were pleased to be invited to the table, by participating we had already accepted the inevitability of seismic surveys.

One of the many responses I received when I announced that I would be attending the workshop was from Mac Hawley, who quipped that “mitigation” and “seismic surveys” were an oxymoron.  I concurred stating that “mitigation” and “airguns” don’t belong in the same sentence unless the word “solar” is also included.

At the end of the day it was not a total giveaway. Dr. Weilgart did get precautionary language into the document. Jim Cummings did get some wording about broader considerations for behavioral and synergistic impacts. I wrote a piece on “Objectives and Outcomes” to clarify the fact that the document was not designed to “make sure that survey operators met the established guidelines;” rather it was to make sure that their practices, above all, are performed with the overarching objective of conserving marine life.

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