Seismic testing threatens New York waters

A humpback whale pops up in the Hudson River as seen from New York City with New Jersey in the background.
A humpback whale pops up in the Hudson River as seen from New York City with New Jersey in the background.
Craig Ruttle/AP/REX/Shutterstock
A humpback whale pops up in the Hudson River as seen from New York City with New Jersey in the background.

Seismic testing threatens New York waters

Even before offshore oil and gas drilling occurs, the damage begins.
May 16, 2018

Have you ever wondered what the loudest sounds in the ocean are? You might guess a whale’s song or a motor boat. Few people would guess a seismic airgun, or even know what one is, but the device is about to wreak havoc on the ocean off the coast of New York state as a result of the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to open the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling.

A seismic airgun is a torpedo-shaped tool that shoots dynamite-like blasts of compressed air through the ocean in order to search for potential oil and gas deposits on the seabed. Because water is a more efficient conduit for sound than air, seismic airgun blasts injure or kill marine life and disrupt local fisheries and coastal economies. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, airguns have been shown to “dramatically depress catch rates of various commercial species (by 40 to 80 percent) over thousands of square kilometers around a single array,” with effects trickling down to fishing businesses, restaurants and coastal tourism. These blasts can be repeated every 10 to 12 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks or months at a time, and have been described by the then-director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University as “the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment.”

Numerous studies have shown that marine mammals will be most severely affected by an increase in airgun use. Seismic surveys have the potential to stop endangered fin and humpback whales from vocalizing (an essential behavior for breeding), reduce sperm whale foraging, and cause harbor porpoises to engage in unusual avoidance responses.

Seismic blasting is the first step towards offshore drilling, and according to Oceana, offshore drilling and exploration along just the Atlantic could put at risk approximately 1.54 million jobs and $108 billion in gross domestic product, all of which rely on a healthy, functioning ocean.

Even if no oil is discovered, irreparable damage to the oceans is caused by seismic blasting. Fish populations are depleted by seismic surveying. Reef fish have been found to decrease by 78 percent during the evening hours after being exposed to seismic surveys. Specific fish for which there are fishing industries, such as rockfish, have also been seen to decline in catch sizes by 52 percent after exposure to seismic airguns. A 2017 study found a two- to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton and full larval krill death within a range of 1.2 kilometers of experimental airgun signals.

Affected areas can be as large as 100,000 square nautical miles from the blast site. Given these scales, according to the NRDC, “surveys taking place off the coast of Virginia could well affect endangered species off southern New England.” North Atlantic right whales could be disrupted throughout their entire East Coast migratory range.

Because the ocean belongs to everyone, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972. Since the MMPA’s passage, no marine mammal has gone extinct in United States waters, thanks to the ecosystem conservation approach. If an ecosystem thrives, all the species within can thrive, including humans who depend on the ocean.

The Trump administration is proposing to expand offshore drilling and reduce the safety regulations put in place after the BP oil spill, and members of Congress are pushing legislation to repeal the safeguards of the MMPA, all in order to make it easier to conduct seismic blasting.

One such short-sighted piece of legislation is called the SEA Act, which strips the MMPA of important protections that have thus far limited the scope, duration and extent of seismic blasting. (The misleading acronym stands for ““Streamlining Environmental Approvals.”) It is nothing more than a free pass for oil companies to do whatever they want with our oceans and avoid any accountability for the damage their activities cause. A better name might be the “Dead Whales Act” or “Ruptured Dolphin Eardrum” Act, but those names would be transparent, and transparency is not what oil companies want.

The data generated by these seismic airgun blasts explode across the ocean does not become available to the greater scientific community. It remains proprietary to the oil companies, and students of earth sciences, local communities and even members of Congress do not have access. The only information derived from seismic blasting that might make its way to the public is how many dead whales are found on a beach, or how many fishermen return home with no fish to sell in order to support their families.

Another current piece of legislation that seems insulting to the intelligence of the American people is the SECURE American Energy Act (real name: “Strengthening the Economy with Critical Untapped Resources to Expand American Energy Act.”) By the name of it, one might think this bill aims to secure American energy, which would be accomplished by expanding wind and solar energy, both of which are abundant in America and create local manufacturing jobs. Yet this bill doesn’t seem as concerned with American energy and jobs as it does with the profits of multinational oil companies by expanding offshore drilling and exploration activities.

After public outcry, President Barack Obama denied permits to conduct seismic testing off the coast of New York, but new permit requests will inevitably continue to be submitted until a moratorium is put in place.

And while Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a bill to effectively block offshore drilling in New York, it may not pass the state Senate and it would not necessarily prevent seismic testing.

Republicans in Washington want to put the fate of the oceans in the hands of profit-motivated corporations. We have decades of recent history to show that fossil fuel companies are not ecologically responsible. The ocean should be closed for business to oil and gas drillers – and that includes seismic testing.

Clarification: This article has been updated to make clear that Dr. Christopher W. Clark is no longer the director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University.

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Isabella Gukeisen
is a Skidmore College junior studying environmental studies.
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Sabrina Xie
is a Skidmore College sophomore studying chemistry.