click to enlarge A Southern right whale

A Southern right whale

The hunt for oil along Florida's Atlantic coast may be a reality again, but what does that mean for marine life? 

Blowhards

In late November, despite zealous opposition from communities, businesses and lawmakers along the eastern shoreline, the Trump administration cleared a path for seismic blasting to search for oil in American waters.

Five companies have been issued incidental harassment authorizations, or IHAs, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which allow them to use high-powered air guns to search the Atlantic sea floor for oil in federal waters between Florida's Space Coast and New Jersey. The permits are valid for one year, and they ban testing in waters up to 56 miles offshore between November and April during calving season for some whale species. Using visual and acoustic observers on ships, seismic surveyors are required to stop work if they spot a whale within a mile.

The last time U.S. exploration occurred off the Atlantic coast was between 1976 and 1983, when companies covered more than 2.3 million square miles of ocean in search of oil. The only fruit of the mission, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, was the discovery of natural gas off the Northeast coast. The wells were abandoned soon after.

Although that operation came up largely empty-handed, with the industry's latest technology at its disposal, the controversial decision to move forward with seismic blast exploration has been made. It comes almost two years after the Obama administration nixed the idea, deeming it unsafe for marine life. Because sound can be amplified many times underwater and travel thousands of miles as a result, scientists argue that underwater noise can harm marine life that uses sonar to find food, escape predators, communicate with their young and locate mates.

"When these blasts go off, it makes it very, very difficult for marine animals to communicate, as well as just exist," says Hunter Miller, the Southwest Florida campaign organizer for the nonprofit Oceana. The blasts, he adds, also affect fisheries, which could affect commercial fish populations.

"It's a total lose/lose for coastal communities up and down the East Coast," Miller says.

According to an estimate by the Department of the Interior, of which the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is part, seismic air gun testing in the Atlantic Ocean could injure as many 138,000 dolphins and whales and disrupt nesting for threatened loggerhead sea turtles, among other issues.

Environmentalists are particularly concerned with the future of the North American right whale, a critically endangered species that draws its name from the poachers who once hunted it for lamp oil. Because their hides produced the best type of oil, they were the "right" whale to hunt.

According to data from the NOAA, roughly 400 to 450 right whales remain in the wild. Of those, there are just 100 breeding females. Annually, the whales make a 1,000-mile migration from Nova Scotia to as far south as Cape Canaveral, where they give birth in their only known breeding ground. Last year, however, was the first time since scientists began tracking the populations that no right whale calves were born.

The seismic blasts, environmentalists say, won't help.

Here's how it works: Aboard a vessel designed for the task, seismic surveys use air guns to blast the ocean floor with acoustic waves every 10 to 12 seconds as a means of mapping what's underneath. As many as 48 guns, arranged in a rectangle, blast pulses directly down. Those blasts can be as high as 250 decibels – loud enough to penetrate layers of sand and rock.

The sound can, however, be much lower in surrounding areas, and that's why supporters such as Gail Adams, vice president of communications and external affairs at the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, say it's a safer alternative to exploratory drilling.

"It is a documented fact that there has not been one instance of sound from our activities that's harmed marine life," Adams says. "So it is not our opinion. The federal government has said that there is not one documented case of sound emitted by our activities harming marine life."

Adams argues that the opposition isn't really aimed at seismic testing but rather the entire petroleum industry.

"The opposition is really people who are anti-oil and gas, or entities that are anti-oil and gas," Adams says. While IAGC has waited for the past four years to have its incidental harassment authorization approved, she says, there have been 22 other authorizations, none of which has faced opposition. "The only difference between those surveys and the surveys that we are doing now is that we are exploring for oil and natural gas resources." The other authorizations, Adams says, supported searches for renewable energy opportunities.

Adams says she and her fellow industry colleagues "care about the environment" and are exploring "in an environmentally safe manner." To Oceana's Miller, though, that's beside the point: It's the process of seismic air gun blasting that's harmful to the natural world.

Miller points to a June 2017 article in the science journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, which claims seismic surveys cause significant mortality to zooplankton populations. Global marine systems depend on these tiny organisms for nutrition. According to the research, experimental air gun signal exposure decreased zooplankton abundance and caused a two- to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton.

In science-speak, that's a lot. An overview of the study concludes: "There is a significant and unacknowledged potential for ocean ecosystem function and productivity to be negatively impacted by present seismic technology."

Congress could intervene to stop the testing, as could President Trump, though neither of those options seems likely. Activists are eyeing the courts instead.

"We have to review these permits and figure out what the next step is going to be," says Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "We always look at these things with an eye toward whether there's litigation that is necessary. So I think we're in the phase now of evaluating whether that's the tool in the toolbox that we need to use to stop this."

Another tool might be something like Amendment 9, which Florida voters passed last month to protect state waters from drilling. But state waters only extend out three nautical miles. Outside that, the feds have control.

And, as Miller acknowledges, the U.S. oil and gas industry has considerable sway with the current administration and the Republicans in Congress.

Miller describes the situation as one in which the oil and petroleum industry is always waiting for a way in which they're allowed to exploit the ocean for profit, "regardless of the environmental devastation that may come along with it."

But it's a game that environmentalists are familiar with, Miller says. "We continually play this game of Whack-a-Mole with offshore drilling, and every single time you see coastal communities having to fight this fight all over again."

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