Conservationists, fishermen, recreational ocean users, local officials, native tribes, and concerned citizens all walk into a meeting...

Humpback whales were among the over two dozen species that were protected when a permit for offshore seismic surveys was denied.

While the above title sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, it is what actually happened last week at the California Coastal Commission’s public meeting. What did all these parties have in common? They wanted the Commission to deny Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) request for a permit to perform offshore seismic surveys. When it comes to ocean policy, the aforementioned groups don’t always see eye to eye, but the risky consequences of high energy seismic testing at Diablo Canyon, a nuclear power plant parked right on the central coast of California, had a remarkably unifying effect.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare, along with many other concerned organizations, submitted letters to the Commission encouraging them to deny the permit and to recommend to PG&E that they find an alternate way to analyze seismic safety at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The adage “we all do better when we work together” was proved correct last Tuesday when the Commission denied PG&E’s request!

The requested permit was to allow PG&E to begin high-energy surveys of 130 square miles of ocean. A 235-foot vessel was to tow a 1/4-mile-wide array of submerged, 250-decibel air cannons that would discharge every 15 seconds, night and day, for 17 days. The goal was to produce three-dimensional images of fault lines to better understand the seismic safety of the plant.

However, the ratepayer-funded study would have likely caused significant and unavoidable impacts to marine life. PG&E’s “takings” analysis for the original project acknowledges thousands of marine mammals would be harassed and possibly killed during the testing process. Over two dozen different species of marine mammals, including four endangered species: blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, and California sea otters would have been impacted, and have now been spared such aggravations. It would have also affected a small, discrete population of harbor porpoises that resides in and around Morro Bay.  Harbor porpoises are acutely sensitive to man-made sound, making them especially vulnerable both to habitat abandonment and to hearing loss.  Given their dependence on sound for most life functions, this could have destroyed their ability to survive and reproduce. 

The Commission’s staff submitted a report prior to the meeting, which stated that overall, "more than 7,000 individual marine mammals from 17 species would be exposed to sound levels sufficient to result in some level of disturbance and behavioral disruption". In addition, the project would "result in mortality to about 5 million fish and invertebrate larvae in the project area and an unknown number of fish eggs.” By denying PG&E’s permit, the Commission has undoubtedly made a big impact on the health of numerous marine animals as well as helped to sustain the livelihoods of many a fisherman.

While IFAW fully supports PG&E’s goal of ensuring the safety of the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor, and recognizes the value of reassessing its earthquake risk with improved data where possible, the benefits of this particular study method do not currently outweigh the massive costs.

Apparently that is something almost all of us can agree on.

IFAW wishes to thank the California Coastal Commission for recognizing that the health of our oceans and those who reside in it, is a great benefit to us all!


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation