New offshore oil and gas exploration activities are set to start along the U.S. east coast after a three-decade hiatus, but a recent Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) decision means that companies will be allowed to use sonic cannons as they map the ocean floor. BOEM acknowledges that whales, dolphins and turtles will be affected by the potentially deafening noise, with its own estimates stating 138,000 marine animals are at risk.
BOEM issued its record of decision (ROD) for the “Environmental Review of Geological and Geophysical Survey Activities Off the Atlantic Coast” on Friday. The ROD outlined the “strongest practicable safeguards to eliminate or reduce impacts to human, marine and coastal environments” in the course of upcoming surveys. It was released after a 28-month public review process, which received 122,500 comments in two stages, and BOEM selected the most environmentally stringent of the three options under consideration. The ROD provides the framework for permit approvals as exploration companies ramp up their survey activities ahead of the 2018 expiration date on the ban on offshore drilling lease approvals between Delaware and Florida.
In order to receive a permit to use sonic cannons under the terms of the ROD, companies must maintain an exclusion zone of at least 500 meters (547 yards) from any marine mammals or sea turtles. Spotters must be on board to make visual checks for animals, and underwater sonic testing is required to listen for marine mammal calls. Survey activities must be stopped immediately if animals stray into the exclusion zone. Tests must be conducted a minimum of 40 kilometers (24.85 miles) apart, and tests are also banned between various dates from November through to the end of April during the migration and breeding season of the endangered Northern Atlantic right whale.
However, conservationists and the fishing industry are speaking in rare unison as they express concern that the noise – which can be as frequent as every 10 seconds and can be heard for thousands of miles underwater – will affect not only marine mammals and turtles but also fish and crabs, which have been shown to use sound to communicate and navigate as well. While sonic cannons are already in use in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska and internationally, little is known about the effects they have on marine life. Given stringent controls on scientific testing and the approaching of whales, Scott Kraus, a right whale expert at the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory in Boston told The Huffington Post: “No one has been allowed to test anything like this on right whales. (The Obama administration) has authorized a giant experiment on right whales that this country would never allow researchers to do.” But with an estimated 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lying off the East Coast, by the end of the decade the noise of sonic cannons may not be the only threat to the area’s marine life.