Scientists to Obama: Stop Controversial Sound Blasting Threatening Atlantic Whales, Fish

WASHINGTON — Leading ocean scientists from the U.S. and around the world today urged President Obama to halt a planned oil and gas exploration program off the Atlantic coast involving millions of underwater sound blasts that would have “significant, long-lasting and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival” of threatened whales and commercial fish populations.

In a letter to the President, the 75 scientists from Cornell, Duke, the New England Aquarium, Stanford, the University of North Carolina and other U.S. and international institutions say that the seismic blasts, from high-volume airguns that fire every 10-12 seconds, are nearly as loud as conventional explosives and have “an enormous environmental footprint.”  Experts say airgun noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles.

The letter is the first time that a group of prominent scientists has said that the harm from seismic blasting will be significant and long-lasting for entire populations of marine life off the U.S. coasts.

Because whales depend on sound waves to communicate, feed, mate and travel, the blasting can disrupt the reproduction and feeding of blue whales and other endangered whales “over vast ocean areas,” the letter says. It expresses special concern for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain.

The blasts also “could have potentially massive impacts on fish populations,” according to the letter. In some countries seismic testing has driven away commercial species, resulting in dramatic drops in catch rates. Studies also show the airguns could kill fish eggs and larvae, interfere with breeding and make some species more vulnerable to predators.  

“People are rightly concerned about the dangers of offshore oil spills, but seismic blasting is likely to have a terrible impact on Atlantic sea life before the first well is even drilled,” said Michael Jasny, Director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project.

The seismic surveys, used by oil companies to locate oil and gas deposits below the ocean floor, were evaluated  last year by the Department of the Interior and would result in more than 20 million seismic “shots” over a multi-year period. “The Interior Department itself has estimated that seismic exploration would disrupt vital marine mammal behavior more than 13 million times,” the letter says.

Nine applications for seismic blasting have already been filed, covering most of the Atlantic Ocean continental shelf from Delaware to Florida along with deeper waters further out to sea. The issue assumed new urgency earlier this year when the Obama administration announced plans to allow, for the first time in more than 30 years, offshore oil and gas drilling in the region.  The Interior Department has scheduled “open houses” next week in Annapolis, Md., and Charleston, S.C. to receive comments from the public on the proposed drilling leases; additional hearings will take place in Atlantic City, N.J., and Savannah, Ga., and on the Outer Banks of North Carolina later this month.

Separately, Interior says it will hold another series of open houses focusing specifically on the seismic survey applications, beginning on March 31, in Norfolk, Va., Annapolis, Md., Dover, Del., Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. 

The Interior Department is still processing the seismic applications, but the scientists urge President Obama to step in now. “Opening the U.S. east coast to seismic airgun exploration poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life,” they write, asking him to reject Interior’s decision to allow the blasting.   

A copy of the letter is available here:

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