National Oceanic Atmospheric Association
Right whales, above, are among the legions of aquatic mammals and other sea creatures that are endangered by seismic testing.

'A Deaf Whale Is a Dead Whale': Sound Blasting for Oil Threatens Marine Life

Kristin Butler

Editor’s note: This is the first of three stories on the devastating effects of seismic airgun blasting on marine life.

BOOM! BOOM! Each blast, 100,000 times louder than a jet engine, reverberates through the ocean, slamming against the hearing apparatus of hundreds of thousands of sea creatures.

"Think about dynamite going off in your neighborhood every ten to twelve seconds for weeks or months on end," said Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), to Indian Country Today Media Network.

This is what oil companies are attempting to do in the name of offshore exploration. The Obama Administration is currently reviewing nine applications for seismic surveys to look for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean floor in the Atlantic, from Delaware to Florida, risking the lives of nearly 140,000 marine mammals.

Seismic testing involves the use of sonic cannons to shoot compacted air to the ocean floor, creating sound waves that map oil and gas reserves in the seabed. Exploration would involve blasts every 10–12 seconds in areas for weeks or months on end, totaling more than 20 million seismic shots over a multi-year period.

The sound waves from these dynamite-like blasts are expected to injure and possibly kill 138,500 whales and dolphins along the East Coast and "disrupt vital marine mammal behavior more than 13 million times," states a U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) assessment.

In early March, 75 prominent marine scientists from institutions including Duke, Cornell, the New England Aquarium, Stanford and the University of North Carolina sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to reject the Department of the Interior’s analysis and its decision to introduce seismic oil and gas surveys in the Atlantic, stressing the catastrophic effect of seismic airgun blasts on marine life.

Deafening and Silencing an Acoustic Species

The repetitive noise of seismic testing is hazardous to marine mammals that rely on echolocation to find food and mates, nurture their young, navigate and communicate with other members thousands of miles away.

"Sound travels much faster and further in water than in air," said Jasny. "Marine species have evolved to use sound for virtually everything they do—finding mates, finding food, avoiding predators, making social bonds, orienting themselves in water—everything they do to survive in the wild."

Seismic airguns emit one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean. The incessant noise results in "hearing loss, both temporary and permanent, and chronic stress, mother-calf separation, and all kinds of acute behavioral responses," Jasny said. "It's a parade of horribles."

Airgun blasts can cost these marine animals their hearing, said Phil Kline, the senior oceans manager at Greenpeace.

"Even from some distance, [airgun blasts] can make them go deaf,” he said. “And a deaf dolphin or whale is a dead dolphin or dead whale.”

Studies on the impact of air guns show that "airguns have a geographically sweeping impact—they silence the whales and drive them from their habitat over very large areas of ocean," Jasny said. "A study on fin whales in the Mediterranean showed a single airgun caused their silencing and displacement. They abandoned a habitat of roughly 100,000 square kilometers in size."

High-intensity noise can also cause severe physiological damage, such as organ and tissue ruptures, and potentially beach stranding and death. Similarly loud noise from Navy sonar testing in the Pacific Ocean off the West Coast—as well as in the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands, Spain and Hawaii—caused marine mammals to bleed from the ears and resulted in hemorrhaging of their brains.

Threatening an Endangered Species

The Atlantic Ocean is habitat for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, of which roughly 500 remain. The mammals breed off the coast of Georgia and give birth in the Mid-Atlantic, both proposed blast zones.

"The Northern Right Whale is critically endangered; there are only a few hundred left," Kline said. "With seismic activities from Florida up through the Mid-Atlantic, the range where they give birth, you are disrupting their behaviors and putting a critically endangered population even more at risk."

To escape extreme noise, right whales swim to the water's surface, hovering just below eyesight, making them vulnerable to collision with ships.

"I've got it down to a sound byte: No whale blood for oil; it's not a fair trade," Kline said. "We don't have the right to be destroying these populations for any fossil fuels. They have as much right to exist as we do."

Displacing Populations of Fish

The loud blasts would also have a drastic impact on the fish stocks that commercial fishermen and tribal fisheries depend on.

"We are one hundred percent against” seismic testing and offshore drilling, Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown told ICTMN.

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe in King William, Virginia, has operated its fish hatchery since 1918 and has played a key role in helping restore American shad populations, which started dropping in the 1970s due to overfishing, pollution and dams. Seismic blasts pose an even greater threat.

RELATED: Pamunkey and Mattaponi Wrestle With Fishing Rights in Virginia

Airgun blasts cause fish densities to drop rapidly. Jasny referenced a 1996 study across a 2,000-square-mile swath of ocean off the coast of Norway. When scientists emitted seismic blasts, "fish were displaced, and catch rates of the fisheries in the same area plummeted, decreasing 40 to 80 percent depending on the species and method of catch," Jasny said. "They continued monitoring for several days, and fish densities and catch rates did not rebound."

Kline, formerly a commercial fisherman for 29 years, can attest to the drastic effects of airgun noise on fish.

"I witnessed firsthand the disruption to the fish populations along the Washington-Oregon coast in the seventies and eighties," Kline said. "When seismic testing killed the fisheries, you couldn't catch virtually anything where fish were once abundant. The recovery to schools of fish and catch rates took weeks, months and sometimes longer—and it was all happening out of sight and out of mind."

Next: "Making Waves: The Fight Against Seismic Testing for Oil"

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