Activists: Seismic testing lethal for whales, dolphins

Plan to open Mid-Atlantic coast for offshore oil exploration raises concern
February 12, 2013
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is reviewing data as part of plan to allow sonic testing off Mid-Atlantic shores. SOURCE BOEM

The quest to discover new domestic oil reserves could have dire consequences for Mid-Atlantic sea life, says the director of a local marine animal rescue group.

Six companies have requested permits for seismic testing off the Delaware coast as companies search for new oil and gas reserves.

But that type of testing could kill thousands of dolphins, sea turtles and whales, said Suzanne Thurman, executive director of Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute. If seismic testing doesn't kill them, she said, the blasts could shatter eardrums and wreck the nervous systems of many marine animals.

"This is heartbreaking for us to see that this would be proposed," Thurman said.

Seismic Airgun Testing is a process used by oil and gas exploration companies to determine whether natural resources lie beneath the ocean floor. According to an report from the ocean conservation group Oceana, a vessel tows a seismic airgun, which shoots extremely loud blasts of compressed air through the ocean and miles under the seafloor. These blasts continue every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, sometimes for weeks, the report states.

An Oceana graphic estimates the noise produced by the blast as 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine.

"To have one animal endure that kind of suffering is too much," Thurman said. "Hearing loss would hinder communication between a mother and her offspring, which is critical for survival."

Thousands of dolpins at risk

Seismic testing could reveal oil reserves, but testing off the Mid-Atlantic coast would be devastating, Thurman said.

She said government estimates state more than 25,000 dolphins of varied species and as many as 300 whales of varied species could die.

"They don't even mention sea turtles, which is shocking since we have them in our area as well," she said.

Government estimates are considered legal casualties – a number that officials believe can be killed each year without affecting the population. "Needless to say, we don't see it that way," Thurman said.

In particular, she said, the loss of even two Atlantic right whales – a number permitted under the government's legal casualty estimates – could have an enormous impact on the endangered species.

"This species is barely hanging on," Thurman said.

Thurman has asked volunteers with MERR to send letters to Delaware's congressional delegation opposing any seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast. The issue has been raised during recent U.S. Senate committee hearings.

Kathy Pickens of Lewes said she is a concerned citizen who intends to write local leaders and let them know her concerns with seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast.

"There is an estimate that there are only 400 right whales left in the wild. Just this past week an advisory was issued to boaters to slow their engines, as right whales have been sighted in the mouth of the Delaware Bay. It seems that we are working with a conflict here," Pickens said.

Mid-Atlantic not yet subject to leasing

In August, the Obama Administration approved an Outer Continental Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2012-2017. The program makes all areas with the "highest-known resource potential available for exploration and development," according to a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report.

There are six offshore areas listed for potential lease sales, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and areas near Alaska.

The Atlantic Coast is not subject to leasing under the program. Still, the area could be tested for potential oil and gas reserves as early as 2013, the report states.

BOEM held public hearings last year in Wilmington as part of its programmatic environmental impact statement – a process required before testing is allowed in the Mid-Atlantic, BOEM's website states. The draft plan focuses on allowing testing in the Mid-Atlanic area, where Lewes is the northernmost point. The area runs south to about mid-Florida, according to a BOEM map.

As BOEM moves forward with proposed testing along the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, it states it will use its impact statement to comply with the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

John Filostrat, a spokesman for BOEM, referred to a link at for a list of companies that have applied for permits to explore and test off the East Coast for oil and gas reserves. Of the six companies listed, four are based in Texas, one in Britain and another in Norway.