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.