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Oil industry seismic survey studies: ramp up and long-term population trends

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Science, Seismic Surveys Comments Off on Oil industry seismic survey studies: ramp up and long-term population trends

Two new studies on seismic survey impacts have been released by the Joint Industry Program (JIP) Sound and Marine Life research program, funded by oil and gas companies.

The first looked at the effectiveness of “soft start” ramp up of seismic survey airguns at night and at times of poor visibility.  This has become standard procedure, but there have been some concerns that if marine mammals were very close to the ship, even the low sound levels at the start of the ramp up could be loud enough to cause hearing damage.  Based on two different modeling approaches, the study found “no instances…in which the threshold levels for hearing injury for cetaceans were reached during the initial stages of the soft-start sequence. This suggests that the animals are not at significantly greater risk of harm when a soft start is initiated in low visibility conditions.”  Link to pdf of report at the website of the International Association of OIl and Gas Producers.

The second study aimed to address “the rarely-charted relationship between oil Exploration and Production (E&P) activities and trends in cetacean stocks.”  The study cites case studies involving populations of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico, humpback whales, blue whales and fin whales off the coast of California, northern bottlenose whales off Nova Scotia and harbour porpoises and minke whales off the east coast of the UK. The study, published in Aquatic Mammals,  provided new insights into the worldwide distribution of E&P activity in relation to marine mammal populations and has also revealed striking data gaps in our understanding of cetacean population numbers and trends. While the report’s review of seven stocks “found signs of an increase in numbers in one population (Californian humpback whales),” for the remaining six, “population trends could not be assessed due to the high variability in the abundance estimates.”  Link to pdf of this report.

In essence, there is not enough data to really tell us whether ongoing oil and gas activity has reduced stocks over the long term.  As usual in the many cases where ocean noise and population studies come up against this paucity of solid data, the researchers recommend that someone should fund of future studies ‘that provide more comprehensive data on cetacean stocks.”

JIP research page
Main JIP website

OGP publications page
OGP main page

First-ever lawsuit challenges Gulf of Mexico oil, gas development

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For the first time, decades of oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico is being challenged in court, on the grounds that the noise of seismic surveys used to pinpoint oil reservoirs has a negative impact on the region’s endangered sperm whales.  A consortium of environmental groups, including the NRDC, CBD, and Sierra Club filed a formal notice of intent to sue, because 10 new oil exploration and development project have been approved in recent months without obtaining permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. “Seismic surveys have a vast environmental footprint, disrupting feeding and breeding of wildlife over great distances,” said Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst at NRDC. “It is intolerable to think that the same species threatened by the Gulf spill will have to contend with the industry’s constant pounding, without any serious attempt to mitigate the harm.”

This legal challenge is similar to those mounted against Navy mid-frequency active sonar training, in that they are designed to assure that the behavioral impacts of seismic survey noise are considered, and that Incidental Harassment Authorizations are issued, with conditions meant to avoid any injury of animals, and minimize behavioral changes. The MMPA and ESA clearly require careful assessment and permitting of any activity that may negatively affect marine mammals or endangered species.

What is unclear, though, is how (if at all) oil and gas exploration activities might change after going through these proper legal challenges.  The US Navy now prepares full Environmental Impact Statements for all of its active sonar training areas, and receive IHAs from NOAA, but this legal compliance has not reduced their training activities or succeeded in putting any biologically rich areas off limits–in effect, NOAA has issued the permits after long official assessments that the activities have no significant impacts.  LIkewise, the oil and gas industry does have procedures in place to reduce sound output when animals are (very) close, and research into the behavioral effects of noise exposure at greater distances (lower sound levels) is ambiguous, though concerning.  See this earlier post about AEI’s work in this area, assessing research about behavioral impacts of moderate noise, including seismic.

The rhetoric from the litigants is surprisingly personal, implying that Gulf of Mexico exploration activity is being ramped up by this administration.  “Under Salazar’s watch, the Department of the Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice zone where laws are disregarded and wildlife protection takes a backseat to oil-company profits,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.  (See press release) What is unstated, and may in fact be more to the point, is that the Gulf has been a sacrifice zone for decades.  The fact is that these animal populations in this truly industrialized sea have been living with seismic exploration, drilling, and lots of ship traffic for many many years; some populations, including sperm whales, appear stable. While some may suggest this reinforces NOAA’s current stance that the activities do not cause any significant impact on wildlife, and others (including AEI) say it’s clearly long past time to consider the cumulative and long-term impacts of this activity on marine life, the villain is not Ken Salazar.  It’s our continuing addiction to oil, pushing us to search in ever deeper and more hazardous waters to fill our boundless needs.

Squid can hear! And why it may matter…

Science, Seismic Surveys, Shipping Comments Off on Squid can hear! And why it may matter…

A month or so ago, new research by Aran Moody at Woods Hole was published and garnered a bit of press attention — perhaps largely because it involved squid, whose public fan base rivals that of their more “charismatic” brethren, the whales and dolphins.  I’ve been meaning to post about it, but didn’t get to it.

Just as well, because today, Canada’s MacLean’s magazine blogs the story just right, offering the best mix of science and why it matters that I’ve seen.  The key points are that squid appear more sensitive to low-frequency sounds or pressure waves (such as that perhaps preceding the approach of a whale, rather than the echolocation clicks of dolphins), and this could mean that shipping or seismic surveys may displace squid.  There’s also a chance that invasive squid species, such as the Humboldt squid decimating fisheries along the northeast Pacific coast, could be chased away with noise (oh, joy!).  Check out the full post at MacLeans here.

Scientists to place 76 listening devices in Moray Firth to assess impacts of oil/gas and wind developments on wildlife

Science, Seismic Surveys, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

An impressive array of 76 acoustic monitoring buoys is planned to be deployed in Scotland’s Moray Firth this summer, to listen in on local populations of dolphins, porpoises, whales, and seals.  Scientists from Aberdeen University will place the recording devices up to 70 miles offshore, expanding on work carried out last summer on a smaller scale.  Dr. Paul Thompson, one of the lead researchers, explains: “This will help us get a better understanding of the distribution of particular species. We will be looking at the impact primarily of oil and gas exploration, but also the development of wind farms. During construction phase of these developments, it can be quite noisy and affect marine mammals. It will allow us to get a better understanding of how they use different parts of the Moray Firth and to understand what parts are most important” to each species.  Read more at The Scotsman.

Lawsuit to target oil and gas noise in Gulf of Mexico

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The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Department of Interior, claiming that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been approving oil and gas exploration and development for years without making the companies obtain the “incidental harassment permits” required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.  While the CBD’s press release focuses on the 100 seismic surveys and 300 drilling operations approved since the Obama administration came into office (and uses some pretty inflammatory language aimed at Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar), the Gulf has been one of the world’s most industrialized ocean regions for many decades, and the practices described are long-standing.  According to the CBD press release, the primary impact that has not been addressed is the effects of industry noise on whales and other sea life; CBD point out that some of the sounds are loud enough to damage whale hearing (though fails to note that this occurs only at very close range) as well as disrupt important behaviors (which can occur many miles away). The North Sea is the only other ocean region that’s been so widely impacted for so long by oil and gas development, with West Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, and the South China Sea all working hard to join the party in recent years.

The CBD stresses that the many oil and gas activities in the Gulf must be more thoroughly examined, especially since in some conditions noise can reverberate and become nearly continuous.  While the National Marine Fisheries Service was consulted by the MMS, with NMFS issuing a Biological Opinion that included the assessment that whales would be affected, no harassment  or  permits were issued or required by MMS. (Ed. note: I haven’t read the Biological Opinion, but there’s a good chance that NMFS considered the effects to be negligible; this is a common bottom line in agency consideration of noise impacts, and is the grounds used to issue the harassment permits.  It is likely that while CBD’s suit is based on the procedural question of missing permits, the root of their challenge is a disagreement that the effects are negligible.) The notice of intent concludes by saying: “An appropriate remedy that would prevent litigation would be for the Secretary to initiate the process to authorize the take of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico pursuant to Section 101(a)(5) of the MMPA by a date certain. Meanwhile, the Secretary must stop approving lease sales, exploration and development plans, and seismic exploration permits in the Gulf of Mexico until and unless it obtains the required authorizations under the MMPA and ESA.”

UPDATE: According to a Reuters report, the Interior Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced on Friday the 15th that they would initiate a review of MMS’s NEPA procedures, especially their obligations under the MMPA and ESA.  Earlier in the week, Secretary Salazar had announced a plan to split the MMS into two parts, one of which would collect royalties, with the other overseeing regulatory enforcement.

Acoustic Zoom promises to provide high-resolution images of offshore oil and gas reserves

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A small item in the Marine Technology Reporter just clued me in to what looks to be an interesting new line of acoustic imaging products that could have potential to augment, or perhaps reduce the need for, repeated seismic surveys of active oil and gas fields. PanGeo Subsea has announced new financing to develop their Acoustic Zoom, which they compare to a “deep earth telescope” capable of providing detailed imagery of subsea geology down to 6000m below the sea bed.  Current information does not clarify any details about the products’ acoustic output.

Most companies now utilize repeated seismic surveys in order to track the depletion of offshore oil fields; doing repeated 3D seismic surveys over time is termed “4D” surveying.   According to a recent PanGeo press release and backgrounder, one of the major limitations of current marine 4D surveys is that the resolution at reservoir depths is often too coarse to be able to focus the seismic attributes to a specific compartment or feature of the reservoir. Their Acoustic Zoom is pitched as a novel high resolution method which uses steered beams on reception and on transmission to produce images with higher definition than can be attained with conventional seismic techniques. They project that it will “reduce the cost, scheduling and logistics involved with 4D seismic imaging, including reductions in the amount of equipment, data acquisition time, as well as the time to compute and interpret seismic results. We expect our technology to become an important tool for permanent reservoir monitoring applications.”  To , read more about the Acoustic Zoom, see the these two press releases, announcing private funding received in July, and Canadian government funds received in February.

PanGeo Acoustic Corer: the arms turn to image a full circle below

PanGeo Acoustic Corer: the arms turn to image a full circle below

There is no information on the company’s website about the source levels or frequencies of the acoustic pulses used by any of their innovative systems.  In addition to the Acoustic Zoom, which is still under development, PanGeo has previously brought to market two related products, the Acoustic Corer and the Sub-Bottom Imager.  The Acoustic Corer provides high-resolution images that can be manipulated in great detail; each scan covers an area 14m in diameter and 30-80m deep.  See this page for three videos of the Acoustic Corer and its data.  The Sub-Bottom Imager is an ROV that moves along the seabottom, making images 5m wide and 5m deep.  Both of these products are more oriented toward pre-construction surveys to help avoid surprises as infrastructure is being placed on or into the seafloor.

AEI annual report, Ocean Noise 2009 is now available

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The Acoustic Ecology Institute has published Ocean Noise 2009, the fourth in its annual series of reports reviewing new research and regulatory developments in ocean noise. AEI’s annual recaps are widely anticipated and circulated among ocean noise scientists and regulators, as well as within NGO and journalist communities.

The report can be viewed or downloaded as a 45-page PDF, or viewed in the SlideShare plug-in, below.

This year’s report includes coverage of two ongoing issues, seismic surveys and Naval active sonars, with particular focus on the Navy’s continuing roll-out of Environmental Impact Statements for its offshore training ranges and the targeting of Columbia University’s seismic research vessel by environmental activists.

This year’s report introduces a new feature that will be of special interest to journalists: AEI Resource Collections on two topics that will be central to ocean acoustics policy and research in the coming years.

More details below the fold Read the rest of this entry »

NOAA steps up, announces new active sonar oversight with possible off-limits areas

News, Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, Sonar 2 Comments »

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has announced a series of sweeping new initiatives designed to push the Navy forward in its efforts to understand and mitigate the impacts of mid-frequency active sonar on marine mammals.  In response to a request from the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), which asked NOAA to conduct a comprehensive review of this controversial issue, Lubchenco outlined several important new initiatives which mark a more active role for NOAA in moving both the science and policy efforts forward.  Previously, NOAA had worked closely with the Navy on its Environmental Impact Statements, but had largely rubber-stamped the resultant Navy mitigation plans, which consistently rejected any alternatives that set biologically important portions of US coastal zones off-limits to sonar training.

The new NOAA initiatives include four key elements, three of which dovetail closely with long-time concerns and requests from environmental organizations for NOAA to more actively protect areas of biological significance from both Navy and oil and gas noise, and three of which will help fill key data gaps identified by research scientists over the past decade.

  • First, NOAA will work with other civilian agencies (e.g., MMS) to reinitiate comprehensive aerial cetacean and sea turtle surveys, in order to establish more fine-scale population estimates, especially in Navy training ranges.  Currently, many Navy EISs rely on coarse, regional population estimates, leading to unrealistic estimations of population density being spread evenly across large areas.
  • Second, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service will host a workshop aimed at developing a plan to create a comprehensive “ocean noise budget.”  This is a long-time desire of both researchers and environmentalists, and would identify areas in the ocean where human noise is relatively sparse, as well as areas in which new human activity would not add substantially to already high noise levels.
  • Third, another NMFS workshop will be organized to identify marine mammal “hot spots” of particular biological significance.  All three of these initiatives tie together nicely to bring acoustics into the Obama administration’s stated aim of moving toward more coherent Marine Spatial Planning, a sort of ocean zoning approach that would help guide human activities toward areas where they will have less impact on animals.  In a clear indication that NOAA may take a more proactive role in pushing the Navy to leave some areas out of its training zones, the letter stresses that “Protecting important marine mammal habitat is generally recognized to be the most effective mitigation measure currently available.”
  • Finally, NOAA has already begun taking an active role in ongoing meetings between the Navy and the National Resources Defense Council; these meetings were part of a legal settlement and are designed to resolve outstanding differences about Navy active sonar operational and mitigation measures.  Lubchenco notes that “NOAA’s participation will enhance these discussions and help resolve differing views….I also expect the Navy to be open to new ideas and approaches to mitigation that are supported by the best available science.”

Indeed, including “spatio-temporal restrictions” (areas or times when activity is prohibited) in active sonar permitting has been a major sticking point between the Navy and NRDC and other environmentalists, and is something the Navy has consistently and explicitly rejected in the first round of sonar EISs, which have been finalized over the past year for most of the key Navy ranges (California, Hawaii, East Coast and just this week, the Gulf of Mexico), none of which included any limits on where and when the Navy could do sonar training. “The Navy’s Southern California range is over 120,000 nautical miles in size — about the size of California itself,” NRDC’s Michael Jasny points out. “The Bush administration did not put a square mile of this vast area off limits to sonar.”

All in all, this is a remarkable and very productive first step for this administration as it enters the long-contentious waters of active sonar regulation, ocean noise in general.  You can download Lubchenco’s detailed letter at the NOAA website.

Bias in Military (or Conservation) Funded Ocean Noise Research

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(this item first appeared in AEI’s lay summaries of new research)

Wade, Whitehead, Weilgart. Conflict of interest in research on anthropogenic noise and marine mammals: Does funding bias conclusions? Marine Policy 34 (2010) 320-327.

In the United States, the US Navy funds about 70% of the research into the effects of ocean noise on wildlife (and half, worldwide). For many years, conservation groups have questioned whether this preponderance of funding is skewing research results, whether by constraining the types of questions being studied, or by leading researchers to downplay negative impacts of noise in order to continue receiving funding. The authors of this new study report a significant correlation between Navy funding and results reporting “no effect” of noise, based on their analysis of  several wide-ranging reviews of ocean noise science, and of the primary research papers cited in these reviews.  While the data behind their conclusion is clearly explained, the results don’t look nearly as clear-cut to me; I question the comparability of the five reviews used, and while the trends in primary papers is more obvious, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the majority of military-funded papers still found that noise had effects.  Indeed, as the authors make clear, it’s the conservation-funded reviews and primary research that is most clearly one-sided in its results (though there are good reasons for this, also fleshed out by the authors and in AEI’s commentary below).  In AEI’s view, studies like this – and indeed, reviews such as those considered here – are diligent exercises in quantifying an issue that has become, for all practical purposes, an exercise in divergent world views and beliefs talking at and past each other.

This post includes more analysis and interpretation by AEI than we generally include in our science summaries; it’s a long read, but the issues that triggered this study are important ones. Though the clear-cut results reported here are difficult to take at face value, it is well worth considering the underlying forces that drive tensions between environmental groups and Navy/industry actions in the seas.  While primary research and even literature reviews funded by the military don’t appear overly biased toward finding no effect (since in both cases, they include far more results showing effects than not), it remains that in practical terms, the EIS’s generated by the Navy and the mitigation measures imposed by regulators on both military and oil and gas activities are largely grounded in the belief – and regulatory determination – that any effects of these activities are “negligible,” to use the formal term. Thus the focus of the conservation community on funding research and publishing overviews that emphasize credible studies outlining observed negative effects is understandable.

Of special note is that the authors did not find any strong trend toward bias of results reported by independent, academic researchers receiving Navy funding for research studies – these studies showed a similar proportion of effect and no effect results as studies funded by neither the military nor conservation groups (though when comparing military-funded studies with all the others, including consevation-funded, a non-statisticially significant trend of 1.64 times more “no effect” findings was observed).  This should diffuse widespread concerns that cash-strapped academic researchers are “cooking the books” or avoiding publishing negative findings in order to retain Navy funding (though it is perhaps unsurprising to note that few if any key Navy-funded scientists are among the researchers who are willing to speak out publicly to push for stronger regulations on ocean noise). The authors conclude that “much of the bias in military-funded research was in work carried out at military institutions, rather than in studies funded by the military but carried out at universities and other institutions.”  Thus, research coming directly out of military offices is likely to remain less reliable as representing “the whole picture,” as may research entirely funded by conservation groups. Still, by integrating and considering the full range of studies reported in all of these reviews, the public can get a pretty decent picture of current state of our understanding of the effects of ocean noise.

Of note, though, is that the proportion of “no effect” to “effect” findings is slightly lower in military-funded studies. In addition, military-funded studies are three times as likely to report BOTH effects and lack of effects in a single paper; this could indicate either a more careful assessment of the margins where effects are just noticeable, or a tendency to split the difference in order to either underplay the effects or accentuate the non-effects to assuage funders.

While ocean noise issues came to public awareness after a series of stranding deaths and lawsuits, the fact is that deaths and injuries caused by noise are very rare.  Even the leading environmental activists have shifted their focus, and today nearly all of the controversy over military and oil and gas noise boils down to differing interpretations of how important moderate behavioral changes are, and whether they should be avoided or not. And science is nearly incapable of shedding any definitive light on how important behavioral changes are, thus leaving the two sides largely reliant on their divergent faith: the Navy and oil industry’s faith that the behavioral changes are transient and negligible, and environmentalists’ faith that chronic behavioral disruption by human noise is bound to have negative consequences. Meanwhile, ethical questions about humanity’s relationship to the natural world are outside the bounds of discussion on one side, and central to the whole discussion on the other.  This is not as black and white a picture as either side may paint, but it’s where we are.

For AEI’s full summary and discussion of this important new study, dive in below the fold…..

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MMS acoustic monitoring workshop includes AEI ocean noise report as key reading

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Thanks to Brandon Southall’s blog on his new SEA-inc website, which is fast becoming one of the best places to stay abreast of key ocean acoustics research, I heard today the details of what’s planned at the upcoming Minerals Management Service three-day workshop on Acoustic Mitigation and Monitoring Systems for Marine Mammals.  The workshop website now has the agenda online, and will include links to conference documents.  I was surprised and delighted to see that my most recent annual ocean noise report is first on the list of Background Documents to be read by attendees! This report, Ocean Noise 2008: Science, Policy, Legal Developments, can be downloaded from the conference site; it is also available, along with its brethren from 2006 and 2007, at AEI’s page on  Several of my conference Powerpoint presentations are also now available for viewing and download as well, at AEI’s SlideShare page.


The three-day workshop takes place in Boston later this month, and is bringing together most of the key players in the field, including Southall, Cornell’s Chris Clark, Oregon State’s Dave Mellinger, Aaron Thode of Scripps, Leila Hatch of Stellwagen Bank, passive device designers Peter Stein and Gordon Hastie, and several key oil and gas industry players, including Bill Streever (check out his great new book on the north, entitled Cold), David Hedgeland, and Bernard Padovani.

Blue Whale Call Rates Rise Dramatically Near Seismic Survey

Science, Seismic Surveys 5 Comments »

A new study published in Biological Letters found that a seismic survey in wide bay at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway caused blue whales feeding and socializing nearby to double or triple their call rates.  The calls were near-range communication signals, rather than the long, loud songs that are heard over hundreds of miles. The research was meant to simply learn more about these social calls, but during the study, their recordings began to pick up the pulses from a seismic survey.  “The whales made more calls on days when the testing was happening. It seems they are having to repeat themselves in order to not lose information,” said lead researcher Lucia Di Lorio.  They also called more on survey days when the sounds were not audible than when they were, and tended to rapidly increase calls when the sounds appeared.

Blue whale at surface.    Image: Wikipedia Commons

Blue whale at surface. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Blue whales, the world’s largest animal, number just 5-10,000, are solitary for most of the year, making these summer-time feeding gatherings especially important; di Lorio notes that “We don’t yet know a lot about what these calls mean…They come to eat, but also to check out each other, maybe find a mate.”

The results were especially surprising, since the survey in question was using a much lower-power source than many surveys, and at levels much lower than those typically considered likely to cause problems.  “It’s used [here] because it’s thought to have a lower impact on marine life,” di Lorio told the BBC, “But we should definitely reconsider these things, because clearly it’s not only the sound level that’s important; and one thing might be not to do the test when there are lots of whales around.”

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Scientists Urge Pause in Alaskan Offshore Oil/Gas Expansion

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As the extended public comment period expired for input into the Obama administration’s approach to offshore oil and gas exploration, public pressure mounted to take a time-out on plans for expanded development in Alaska’s offshore waters.  During the Bush administration, the Minerals Management Service began planning for offering new leases in the Beaufort Sea (north of Alaska),  Chuckchi Sea (northwest of Alaska, north of the Bering Strait) and in Bristol Bay (north of the Aleutian peninsula).  Native groups and environmentalists have expressed concern about noise impacts on sea life during exploration, and risks to the fragile ecosystem should full-scale development proceed.   Signatures from 300,000 people supporting a halt in new leasing and drilling were delivered to the Department of Interior in DC, and a letter signed by 400 scientists urged the administration to “take a time out from offshore industrial activity to allow for a precautionary, science-based approach that better assesses the consequences of development in a rapidly changing ecosystem.”  One of the key arguments made in recent years has been that the Arctic environment is changing rapidly in response to global warming, and that further stressing habitats with oil and gas development is ill-advised.  “We still have a chance to do it right in the Arctic. All we’re really asking is that for once we look before we leap,” said Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director for Oceana and former National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration research chemist. That means taking a precautionary, science-based approach to oil and gas development, including assessing environmental impacts before issuing permits, sustained monitoring and comprehensive planning to determine the best way to proceed, the scientists say.

Canadian Survey Receives Go-Ahead from Court

News, Seismic Surveys 2 Comments »

A  Canadian court has declined to issue a stay to prevent the vents survey from continuing.  The ship has reached the research area, and has begun the planned project, which involves laying bottom-mounted receivers and doing ten days of airgun shots.  In the course of the short legal brouhaha, it came out that the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs had essentially lost Columbia University’s application for Foreign Ship clearance from February until mid-July, thus contributing to the lack of time for all concerned parties to respond to the plans prior to these hectic pre-cruise days.  An amended permit application from Columbia, submitted the day after the initial lawsuit was filed, was accepted by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans; it aims to avoid exposing any whales to more than 160dB of sound, which creates an effective “exclusion zone” of nearly 7km (which should easily protect the critically endangered North Pacific right whales that EcoJustice mentioned in a TV interview, as they summer in Alaskan waters). The 7km exclusion zone is rather shocking, as only last May I participated in a DFO seismic mitigation expert committee meeting at which the oil and gas industry and agency staff were fully content with 500m exclusion zones, except in especially rich and sensitive whale habitat, where the most extensive exclusion zones were, as I recall, 2.5km.  What sorts of magical powers will be employed by Marine Mammal Observers aboard the Langseth to effectively observe at this super-human distance, was not detailed by the DFO. In any case, the relative lack of whales in this region this time of year should mean that disruption is minimal, though some may well hear and avoid the survey; various species seem to avoid seismic sounds at different distances, from a kilometer or two for most species to 20-30km for belugas and bowhead whales (neither of which occur in this region).  Read the earlier AEInews post covering this incident here. Recent news reports can be read here and here.

Canadian Academic Seismic Survey Targeted by EcoJustice

News, Science, Seismic Surveys 3 Comments »

UPDATE (8/27): A Canadian court has declined to issue a stay to prevent the vents survey from continuing.  The ship is en route to the area, and will continue with the planned research project; the first step will be laying bottom-mounted receivers, before commencing ten days of seismic airgun operations during September.  In the course of the short legal brouhaha, it came out that the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs had essentially lost Columbia University’s application for Foreign Ship clearance from February until mid-July, thus contributing to the lack of time for all concerned parties to respond to the plans prior to these hectic pre-cruise days.  An amended permit application from Columbia, submitted the day after the initial lawsuit was filed, was accepted by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans; it aims to avoid exposing any whales to more than 160dB of sound, which creates an effective “exclusion zone” of nearly 7km.  This seems quite surprising, as only last May I participated in a DFO seismic mitigation expert committee meeting at which the oil and gas industry and agency staff seemed fully content with 500m exclusion zones, except in especially rich and sensitive whale habitat, where the most extensive exclusion zones were, as I recall, 2.5km.  What sorts of magical powers will be employed Marine Mammal Observers aboard the Langseth to effectively observe at this super-human distance, was not detailed by the DFO.  In any case, the relative lack of whales in this region this time of year should assure that few if any whales are close enough to be harmed, though some may well hear and avoid it; various species seem to avoid seismic sounds at different distances, from a km or so for some species to 30km for belugas and bowhead whales (neither of which occur in this region).  Recent news reports can be read here and here.

A month-long seismic survey long scheduled to begin this week has been temporarily sidelined by a Canadian court challenge mounted by BC-based EcoJustice. While the Acoustic Ecology Institute has been closely monitoring the effects of seismic surveys for several years, and I do indeed have concerns about the degree to which airgun noise may disrupt foraging in some cetaceans, this particular lawsuit appears to me to be a dramatic over-reaction to what is planned. Throwing up legal roadblocks to a carefully designed, ten-day academic study is a very extreme reaction, and should be reserved for times and places where there is real danger of harm.  But for this survey, the risks are truly negligible—and this is spoken by someone who resents the free use of “negligible impact” in EAs that minimize the effects of chronic behavioral disruption of cetaceans by noise.

The survey, to be run by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and researchers from the University of Oregon, aims to study the geology underlying a deep benthic vent community 250 km offshore from Vancouver Island, as well as the larger tectonic plate structure in this earthquake-prone region.  The lawsuit seeks a restraining order, contending that Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs cannot grant clearance to a foreign vessel that is expected to harass marine mammals in violation of Canadian law. “To ensure compliance with environmental laws, Canada should deny clearance to this vessel and refuse to sanction the harassment of endangered whales” say Lara Tessaro, Ecojustice lawyer.  (I can’t speak to EcoJustice’s point re: Canadian regulatory process, but the whale threat is being wildly overblown; see below) The R.V. Langseth would be outfitted with 36 airguns, which fire together to create a loud impulse sound, with its echoes from deep beneath the seafloor to be recorded by bottom-mounted receivers deployed from  4-10km apart.  The researchers completed an Environmental Assessment and received permits from NMFS, in accordance with US law governing research funded by the US National Science Foundation (see EA with project summary and projected whale encounters).

The EA projects that the survey could encounter a few whales in the area, which was designated as an MPA in order to protect the still little-studied communities of invertebrates around the hot vents.  Up to 9 minke whales, 12 fin whales, 26 sperm whales, and 3 blue whales, along with several hundred of the regions many thousands of dolphins are expected to hear sounds of 160dB or more, enough to likely make them move away; these exposures will occur at ranges of 4-8km.  No injuries are expected, as both visual and passive acoustic monitoring will aim to power down the airguns if any animals approach the safety zone of 700-1200m.  Read the rest of this entry »

Exxon Targeted for Continued Sakhalin Development As Gray Whales Arrive to Feed

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The World Wildlife Fund is working to build public pressure to force Exxon-Mobil to suspend development activities near the critically important summer feeding grounds of the dwindling Western gray whale near the Sakhalin oil and gas fields on Russia’s north Pacific coast.  This spring, other energy companies took to heart the advice of a special science advisory panel to suspend seismic surveys during this year’s grey whale season (July-October), but Exxon continues its activities, which apparently are centered on construction more than exploration at this point.  According to the Sakhalin consortium, noise monitoring takes place via buoys along the edge of the feeding grounds, and activities are suspended when whales are too close. However, the continued decline of this distinct population (now down to 130, with just 25 breeding females), along with apparent avoidance of the area in past years as noted by the science committee, has spurred calls for extreme caution about any noise-making during the feeding season.

OCS Seismic Surveys Pass First Senate Hurdle–And Come Packaged with Biological Inventory

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Conservationist fears that the end is neigh for the decades-long moratorium on oil and gas exploration off most of America’s coastlines were ratcheted up this month by the passage of the American Clean Energy Leadership Act in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  While Senate Democrats highlight the alternative energy elements in the bill, the oil and gas industry is clearly focused on the openings for new offshore development that it contains. The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration; floor action has not yet been scheduled. The bill contains lots of eco-good stuff (including a ban on US import of Canadian oil sands product), along with the long-dreaded “inventory” of the Outer Continental Shelf’s oil and gas potential.  For much of the US east coast, no modern seismic surveys have taken place; what data exists is largely from the 1970’s, at much lower resolution than is now possible.  There are many steps between this bill and any actual offshore oil development (even if it passes the House and Senate with the OCS survey provision in place, there is still a need for funding for the surveys, and a full Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement process that has yet to begin), but for an increasingly vocal contingent of activists, the proposed seismic surveys will be a line in the sand.  AEI certainly shares the concerns of many others about the effects of survey noise on wildlife (see this recent AEI presentation to a Canadian government advisory meeting, focusing on questions about surveys disrupting foraging activity).  Six different geophysical contractors have proposed seismic surveys off the Atlantic coast; the Minerals Management Service Atlantic Seismic PEIS website has links to maps of these proposals, which span most of the east coast and include a huge amount of overlap.  At the very least, data sharing should be required, in order to minimize duplication of this extremely noisy activity.

However, it is also worth noting that the OCS inventory that is called for in the current Senate bill includes not just oil and gas resources, but also an assessment of potential for wind, wave, and other alternative energy development, fisheries, habitat and conservation, and military use.  I am particularly struck by the provision to assess habitat and conservation values in the OCS: this is exactly the sort of regional overview that could provide the data needed to do real ecosystem-based management of all offshore activities.  Such a comprehensive assessment would identify key habitat (seasonal or permanent) that needs protection from military training activities and increased shipping, including LNG terminals.  The fisheries inventory could also serve to constrain the extent of seismic survey activity, especially for fisheries with depleted stocks and active fishermen associations (both of which are widespread on the east coast).  It may still be possible to strike the whole idea of further oil and gas development from the energy bill; we may be close to the societal tipping point where we are ready to acknowledge that new sources of CO2 simply cannot be tolerated.  The Chairman of the House Natural Resources committee, Nick Rahall, points out that “even the American Petroleum Institute’s most optimistic projections – a best-case scenario extrapolation, requiring that the entire OCS be made available – would, in 2030, provide no more than 5% of our total daily energy needs, and displace only 8% of our oil imports. These are large volumes of oil, to be sure, but they comprise less than half the impact of the increase in fuel efficiency standards that Congress passed just over a year ago.”  Rahall’s committee has held three hearings on oil development in the OCS, and is the gateway for House consideration of a companion to the bill now moving through the Senate. Still, it may not be politically feasible to preclude OCS development outright at this point.  The potential for a comprehensive inventory of offshore resources, including habitat, conservation, and fisheries, may turn out to be well worth the trade-off of allowing the idea of seismic surveys to stay alive for a bit longer.  It’s highly likely that the results of any such comprehensive inventory will constrain survey operations, perhaps even to the point that the industry itself finds the oil and gas horizons too limited to be worth pursuing.

AEI in the World: DFO seismic mitigation meeting

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On May 12 and 13, I was invited to be part of a Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat workshop that was called by the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian sister agency to NOAA) to assess the Canadian government’s mitigation measures to protect marine mammals from noise impacts of seismic surveys used to explore for offshore oil and gas. Thanks to my previous involvement in the Ocean Noise Coalition, a Canadian ONC member recommended that I be invited—thanks, Kathy! Longtime ONC colleague Michael Stocker of Ocean Conservation Research was also there, and we shared some nice rambles around the city. The two-day workshop included a day of “working papers” in which various participants shared research and information meant to inform our assessment of how well marine mammal observers, safety zones, and passive acoustic monitoring perform in their goals of protecting marine mammals from the effects of seismic survey noise. Most of the 40+ participants work for agencies, oil and gas companies or trade groups, or for environmental consultants who write EISs or manage marine mammal observing operations for seismic survey companies. Four of us were from the “environmental community,” and of those, I was the only one to present a working paper.  

My paper was the sole piece of the workshop that addressed impacts beyond the 500m exclusion (or safety) zone, meant to protect animals from injury; Read the rest of this entry »

Alaskan Offshore Oil Leases Thrown Out by Appeals Court

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The Minerals Management Service suffered a major defeat this week, as a Federal Appeals Court ruled that its current five-year leasing program plans for Alaskan waters be vacated and remanded to the Department of Interior for more substantial environmental analysis.  The program includes oil and gas leasing from 2007-2012 on the Outer Continental Shelf; only one lease has been offered in Alaskan waters, though more are in the planning stages.  MMS did produce a 1600 page environmental assessment, but the court found it lacking. Among the primary considerations cited by the court was inadequate analysis of the effects of exploration and drilling noise on migrating Bowhead whales, and similarly inadequate assessment of effects on fish. Kim Elton, director of Alaska Affairs for the Department of the Interior, said his office is still studying the ruling. Though industry officials and some Republicans in the US Congress have called for a quick approval of further offshore development, Elton said the latest ruling should convince people that rushing to formulate land-use policies leave them open to challenge in court and not make hurried assumptions based on the work of the previous administration. “We too often end up doing things in a rushed way without recognising the fact that the paradigm is likely to be challenged,” he said. “And if we don’t do our upfront work we allow a group of people wearing black robes or a person wearing a black robe to set policy.”

More on this:,0,1920171.story

Gray Whales Abandoning Crucial Feeding Ground at Sakhalin?

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It appears that concerns about the impact of a major oil development in the midst of one of the western gray whale’s key feeding grounds are coming to fruition: the World Wildlife Fund is reporting that the critically endangered western Gray whales have largely abandoned a formerly crucial feeding ground near the ever-expanding Sakhalin oil and gas development in far eastern Russia. Disruptions from tanker traffic, offshore construction, and seismic surveys is blamed for the whales’ move from offshore Sakhalin (just north of Japan) to an area closer to western Kamchatka (a peninsula across the Bering Sea from Alaska), where plans for a new oil field are brewing. Source: Russian News and Information Agency, 2/19/09 [READ ARTICLE]

“Arctic Frontiers” Conference Hears Norwegian Concern Over Seismic

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At last month’s Arctic Frontiers conference, Einar Svendsen, research director at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research noted that fish stocks have rebounded nicely in Norwegian waters, but that increasing oil and gas exploration activities could pose a danger.  According to the blog In the Field, he strongly advised that no seismic surveys be conducted during the spawning season. See the full post by Quirin Schiermeier 

The Arctic Frontiers conference included presentations on new research findings in the arctic, the possible implications of global warming and regional melting, and oil and gas development strategies.  You can download all presentations and view video of the proceedings at the Arctic Frontiers website.

Parting Gift from Bushies: Offshore Oil Expansion Plans, But No Money to Proceed

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In the final days of the Bush administration, the Minerals Management Service completed preliminary planning for offshore oil development on the Outer Continental Shelf along the entire eastern seaboard and the California coast.  For the past couple of years, MMS has been laying the groundwork for new drilling, as it became clear that Presidential and Congressional bans on offshore development first implemented in the early 1980’s and renewed ever since, would expire.  The recent documents outline 21 proposed lease areas, and announce plans to conduct a “programmatic” EIS to analyze environmental impacts of multiple seismic surveys off the coasts, as the areas are inventoried using modern surveying equipment (which makes lots of very widespread noise).  The strangest element in the “notice of intent” to conduct the EIS, which would be required before any exploration could take place, is that MMS notes that it has no money to conduct the study, and it actually solicits financial support from the oil and gas industry to keep the EIS moving, stating that it “welcomes participation from outside sources,” and that without funding, the EIS would likely not be completed in time for the 2010-2015 leasing period.  Below the fold, see the AEI News Digest coverage of this issue, including comments from MMS and incoming Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and links to the Notice of Intent and Congressional committee set to oversee OCS development.

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Expert Panel Highlights Behavioral Impacts of Modest Ocean Noise

Bioacoustics, Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, Sonar 3 Comments »

Here at AEI, one of the fun tasks on my plate is writing lay summaries of new scientific research.  Usually.  Early in 2008, a dense volume of the journal Aquatic Mammals was published, which featured the results of a multi-year effort by an all-star team of American ocean noise researchers, who were attempting to distill all the current research on ocean noise, and to recommend Exposure Criteria for marine mammals.  Suffice to say, I read it several times, highlighting madly, but kept putting it aside, reticent to attempt a coherent narrative summary.  

Well, I finally followed through, and what follows (below the fold) is a pretty decent summation of what they came up with.  The headline news is twofold: in addressing noise that may cause physical injury (defined as permanent hearing loss), the authors present a dizzying array of extrapolations and assumptions (largely precautionary but sometimes pure leaps of faith) in order to try to assess the impact of extremely loud sound on marine mammals, given that there is very very little direct data to work with.  They conclude that safety limits could be modestly increased without deafening more whales.  On the behavioral side of the ledger, things are not that much clearer, but much more fascinating.  A series of charts that compile results from all known behavioral response observations highlight the wide range of responses that a given level of sound may cause, but also provide some solid evidence that many marine mammals show fairly dramatic behavioral change when encountering fairly modest sound levels, far below those that current regulations consider necessary to monitor.  With that, if you want to know more, I invite you to click on through….

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Multi-year Sperm Whale Study in GOM Shows Lack of Avoidance at Long-Range, Possible Foraging Changes

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Jochens, A., D. Biggs, K. Benoit-Bird, D. Engelhaupt, J. Gordon, C. Hu, N. Jaquet, M. Johnson, R. Leben, B. Mate, P. Miller, J. Ortega-Ortiz, A. Thode, P. Tyack, and B. Würsig. 2008. Sperm whale seismic study in the Gulf of Mexico: Synthesis report. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Minerals Management Service, Gulf of Mexico OCS Region, New Orleans, LA. OCS Study MMS 2008-006. 341 pp. [DOWNLOAD REPORT]
For four summers, from 2002-2005, a diverse team of researchers studied the sperm whale populations of the northern Gulf of Mexico; this final report presents the results of three distinct lines of research: to learn more about the population sizes, social patterns, and group and individual behavior of this population of sperm whales, to characterize habitat use in this area, and to examine possible changes in behavior in response to the noise of seismic survey airguns. By all accounts, the study was very successful on the first two counts, dramatically increasing our understanding of the overall populations and habitat use, especially in the key areas of the Gulf where the oil and gas industry is moving into deeper waters. It is the third topic, effects of noise, that especially interest us here at AEI, and on this count, the results were not as clear-cut. Over the course of two field seasons in which researchers attached acoustic D-tags to sperm whales, only a total of eight whales were tagged and subsequently exposed via controlled exposure to air guns towed by ships participating in the study. Read the rest of this entry »

5-Year Study Finds Little Impact on Sperm Whales From Distant Seismic Surveys, With Some Indications of Closer Range Effects

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The Minerals Management Service has released the final report of the Sperm Whale Seismic Study, which lasted five years and used acoustic D-tags that track the movements of whales while also recording received sound levels. Unfortunately, few of the 98 whales that were successfully tagged during the study came any closer than 5km to the seismic survey air guns being used as the test sound source, so the final conclusions only address long-range impacts. According to Doug Biggs of Texas A&M, one of the lead scientists, “The bottom line is that airgun noise from seismic surveys that are thousands of yards distant does not drive away sperm whales living in the Gulf.” Biggs also noted that some individual whales feeding at depth reduced the rate at which they made echolocation clicks while in search of prey when the air guns came closer; not enough instances of this occurred during the study to make definitive conclusions about how large an impact this might cause. The study provided a wealth of new information about the Gulf of Mexico sperm whale population, which appears to be genetically distinct from open-ocean sperm whale stockes, smaller in size and with distict vocalization patterns. Sources:, 8/21/08 [READ ARTICLE]  ScienceDaily/Texas A&M, 8/21/08 [READ ARTICLE]

Sakhalin Scientific Panel Cites Failure to do Noise Monitoring as Required

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A scientific panel charged with overseeing environmental safeguards at the controversial Sakhalin-II oil and gas field off the Russian North Pacific coast has criticized project developers for failure to adhere to two key requirements designed to protect the critically endangered Western gray whales in the area. Speed limits for boats are not being observed, and the companies have failed to deploy noise monitoring equipment. In addition, the adequacy of the noise monitoring being planned was criticized by the panel. The critique could jeopardize future funding for the project, as key banks have said that compliance with all of the Grey Whale Advisory Panel’s reasonable recommendations is a condition of financing, and the developers committed to doing so in their Health, Safety, Environment & Social Action Plan. Finalization is close on $5 billion loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. Source: Dow Jones, 6/13/08 [READ ARTICLE]