Seismic Tests Continue to Make Waves

MOREHEAD CITY — More scientists and coastal businesses are speaking out against the threat to endangered whales from seismic testing for oil and natural gas off the N.C. coast.

A group of 28 scientists and research program directors, including four from North Carolina, recently signed a letter earlier calling on President Obama to suspend seismic activity in the Atlantic Ocean because of “profound concern” about the effects the tests could have on the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Meanwhile, the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce recently re-affirmed its opposition to seismic testing first stated in 2015 and is now calling for an outright ban on air gun surveying off the N.C. coast.

Five companies are now seeking federal permits to harass marine mammals, one of the final steps in the federal approval process to conduct seismic exploration. Air gun surveys are known to have large-scale effects on baleen whale species, which includes the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Adding More Stress?

Doug Nowacek

Doug Nowacek

The scientists who signed the letter, marine biologists with specific expertise on the right whale, said the species is among the most endangered whales on the planet, with only about 500 individuals remaining. The whale has been federally protected for 40 years under the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts, but its recovery “has been painfully slow,” according to the letter dated April 14 and signed by Doug Nowacek, Andy Read and Caroline Good of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and William A. McLellan of the biology and marine biology department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, among others.

The scientists say the latest data show the right whale population is no longer increasing but may now actually be declining in numbers. Its decline is thought to be directly linked to the disproportionately high level of human activity occurring along the whales’ East Coast range, resulting in entanglements in fishing gear, underwater noise impacts and exposures to other chronic stressors.

“Adding another major stressor to their environment in the form of seismic surveys would, we believe, substantially increase the risk that the population will slip further into decline and would jeopardize its survival,” according to the letter.

The effects of seismic tests on whales can include disruption of foraging and reproduction activities. “Most recently they have been linked to significant reductions in the probability of calf survival in western Pacific gray whales, another endangered baleen whale population,” according to the scientists’ letter.

Groups favoring seismic testing in the Atlantic dispute the scientists’ claims. One such group, the N.C. Energy Forum, which supports expanded development of the state’s oil and natural gas resources, took to Twitter on Friday to “debunk the myth” that seismic activity is harmful to marine life. But the group’s message was nothing new.

The Tweet included a link to an open letter penned in August 2014 by William Brown, chief environmental officer with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Brown’s letter addressed what he called “misconceptions” about seismic effects on marine mammals, with a set of questions and answers titled “The Science Behind the Decision,” which refers to BOEM’s environmental study issued in February 2014.

“To date, there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical (G&G) seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities,” according to the document.

The bureau is the federal agency that regulates energy exploration and production in U.S. waters.

A ‘Responsible Approach’

The scientists, in their letter, said any meaningful environmental assessment of air gun surveys in the Atlantic must include “a conservative, quantitative evaluation of its cumulative impacts on the whales’ health and reproductive rates over time, which the Interior Department has not done.”

A “responsible approach” would defer any such analysis until after The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s right whale status review scheduled for 2017, according to the scientists.

The letter follows a similar plea from 75 marine scientists in March 2015 to reject the Interior Department’s environmental analysis and its decision to permit seismic surveys in the Atlantic based on the threats to marine mammal and fish populations.

“That request is all the more urgent in light of the new information now available on the vulnerability of North Atlantic right whales,” according to the most recent letter.

Six Applications on File

The National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, has received six Incidental Harassment Authorization applications related to proposed geophysical surveys in the Atlantic, including the five for proposed seismic surveys. The sixth application from a company called TDI Brooks of College Station, Texas, is for a different type of survey, using multi-beam sonar echo sounders.

NOAA provided four of the applications for public review and comment in 2015, including those for TDI Brooks; Spectrum Geo Inc., TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. and ION GeoVentures, all of Houston, Texas. At the time, NOAA received a fifth application from the geophysical services firm Western Geco of West Sussex, England, that was not yet complete.

“We are developing proposed authorizations for four applications that will undergo public review and comment,” Jennie Lyons, a NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman said last week. “These four will include Spectrum, TGS, ION, and Western Geco. We returned the TDI Brooks application as incomplete, based on public comment.”

The Western Geco application was not complete at the time of the initial public review period, Lyons said. It was not included with the applications made available to the public, but it’s now deemed complete and “is not substantively different from the other applications.”

Lyons said NOAA received in January a sixth application from Paris-based CGG, which has offices worldwide including the U.S., that is still under review. The CGG application does not differ substantively from applications previously available for review, Lyons said. The application will be available for review along with any proposed authorization, should it be determined complete.

Business Group Opposed

Mike Wagoner

Mike Wagoner

The Carteret chamber first stated its opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing in a resolution approved Sept. 5, before the Obama administration in March removed the Atlantic outer continental shelf from the draft proposed five-year leasing program for 2017-22. “Offshore exploration … and associated seismic blasting … represent a direct threat to the coastal environment of North Carolina, by creating the risk of pollution and by causing harmful effects to marine mammals, turtles, fish, migratory birds and other aquatic life,” the chamber stated at the time.

Citing the scientists’ letter, the chamber last week called on the Interior Department to move swiftly to ban seismic surveys in the Atlantic. The group said the tests could wipe out the remaining population of right whales.

“While we are grateful the Obama administration listened to part of the message – the risks of pollution to potentially destroy tourism and the environment – the Chamber remains opposed to seismic blasting,” said Bucky Oliver, chamber chairman. “The scientific data show seismic blasting causes underwater, industrial-level noise impacts that are stressful to right whales. The effects are hazardous to the health and fitness of these whales and impairs their reproduction, as is documented by a drastic and dramatic drop in calving rates since 1998.”

Oliver echoed the scientists’ letter, saying the responsible move would be to halt seismic tests until after NOAA completes its whale status review in 2017.

Whales adorn Carteret County's official seal.

Whales adorn Carteret County’s official seal.

The chamber also voiced its support for a U.S. Senate bill introduced last week that would “prohibit any and all seismic activity” off the East Coast. New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, both Democrats, are sponsors of the Atlantic Seismic Air Gun Protection Act, which would create a moratorium on geological and geophysical activities related to oil and gas exploration off the East Coast.

The chamber said it would encourage Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans, to co-sponsor and support the moratorium bill.

Mike Wagoner, chamber president, also posted a comment last week on the organization’s website, noting that the “Right whale is near and dear to Carteret County” and that blasting “could wipe out the remaining population” of the species. Wagoner suggested that county leaders join a “community-wide effort to protect the whales,” which are featured on the county’s official seal.

The seal, or coat of arms, was registered in 1977 with the College of Arms.

“It may also be a fiscally prudent act by today’s Board of Commissioners to join in the movement to save the right whales,” Wagoner writes. “The going rate charged by the College of Arms for a new Coat of Arms, as advertised on its official website today, is 12,100 British Pounds Sterling, the equivalent of $17,410.57 in U.S. currency.”

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About the Author

Mark Hibbs

Mark Hibbs is editor of Coastal Review Online. A native of coastal North Carolina, Mark joined Coastal Review Online in 2015, after more than 20 years with the Carteret County News-Times, where he served as a staff writer and photographer, business editor and assistant to the editor. Mark has won numerous awards for his reporting, including numerous N.C. Press Association awards, the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association's Friend of the Coast Media Award and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2009 Small Business Journalist of the Year Award for the Southeast Region. Mark is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.