A Win for Whales: Seismic Airgun Testing Decision Delayed

Sep 23, 2013 | Updated Nov 23, 2013

Imagine you are in the ocean. You hear the lapping of waves, the squeals of dolphins, and the swish of swimming schools of fish -- all sounds you expect to hear underwater. But then a boat glides overhead, and the chatter is drowned by a deafening roar. Sonic blast after blast -- 100,000 times more intense than the roar of a jet engine -- is shot from the boat, annihilating all other ocean sounds.

The government, after campaigning by Oceana and its allies, spared the Atlantic from this fate when the Department of the Interior postponed their decision on whether to allow seismic airguns off the Atlantic coast. The delay pushes back the timeline for oil and gas exploration and buys marine life needed time.

Seismic airguns are used to search the seabed for buried deposits of oil and gas. Towed behind survey boats, these guns shoot pulses of compressed air through the water every 10 seconds. The noise penetrates miles into the ocean floor and bounces back to the boat, creating a geologic map from the reflected sound waves. These blasts greatly harm marine life and local fisheries.

The government's own estimates predict that seismic airgun use would disrupt critical behaviors like feeding, calving, and breeding for countless marine creatures. At least 138,500 dolphins and whales, they approximate, will be injured or possibly killed by the deafening blasts, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Having barely survived centuries of whaling -- they were the "right" type to kill -- the roughly 500 remaining whales cannot afford to endure yet another obstacle as they struggle to recover.

Dolphins and many whale species are social animals, relying heavily on sound to communicate while they hunt, find mates, and migrate. An ocean filled with deafening blasts will scare dolphins and whales away from habitats where they feed or calve, drown out calls from other animals, and even disrupt their migration routes. These blasts will also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss in some animals, condemning them to death from starvation or stranding.

Even fisheries are at risk. Airguns displace commercial species, kill fish eggs and larvae, and lower catch rates between 40 and 80 percent. Seismic blasts will impact the economies of seven Atlantic states, including more than 100 fishing communities and more than 500,000 marine tourism and local recreation jobs.

The proposed seismic survey zone spans more than 300,000 square miles of ocean from Delaware to Florida -- an area twice the size of California. Within that zone lie marine reserves, fishing grounds, and critical habitats for endangered species. Current rules ban drilling in the Atlantic until 2017, but the oil and gas industry could begin the mapping process while the ban is still in place, shepherding in unsafe offshore oil drilling.

So, the oceans will remain quiet for the time being, but airgun blasts could ring through the waves as soon as next year. At Oceana, we are working to halt the use of airguns to prevent them-and ultimately offshore oil drilling-from wreaking havoc on our oceans. Our coasts -- and our climate -- cannot handle these ill-advised investments in unsustainable fossil fuel technologies. The government needs to make the right choice: ban the use of airguns in the Atlantic and beyond.