Despite vehement opposition by thousands, BOEM decides to allow seismic airgun use in Mid-Atlantic

A North Atlantic right whale with an oil platform in the distance. It's the search for more oil using seismic airguns that may further threaten this already critically endangered species

The last time that I addressed this issue, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had put forth a final proposal to allow seismic airgun testing off the East Coast.

As of last Friday, July 18th, BOEM made it official:

Despite overwhelmingly negative public feedback, BOEM has now stated that it will allow seismic airgun use in an area that is twice the size of California and extends from Delaware to Florida.

Seismic testing involves ships towing airguns that release extremely loud pulses of compressed air every 10-12 seconds for days, weeks, or months at a time. These pulses are almost as loud as explosions. While the purpose of airgun surveys is to canvas the ocean floor in search of resources like oil and gas, the sound emitted travels outward thousands of miles from the source and has terrible consequences.

More by Margaret: Standing-room only for marine mammals on Capitol Hill

The new seismic airgun usage off the East Coast is expected to negatively impact commercial and recreational fishing, coastal economies, and marine life along the entire coast.

In fact, BOEM’s environmental impact study estimates that more than 138,000 marine mammals may be impacted by seismic testing, including nine critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Seismic airgun surveys will have a particularly nasty effect on North Atlantic right whales, which are already under siege from ship strikes and entanglements. Like other whales, right whales rely on vocal communication to find food and reproduce. The noise from seismic airguns can propagate through the water and inundate whales’ eardrums, making it impossible for them to hear one another, locate food, or avoid imminent dangers. The whales’ calls can be overpowered by these blasts to such an extent that their pods become separated.

There are only around 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world

Their only known breeding and calving grounds are in Georgia and Florida, located solidly within the newly designated seismic airgun testing zone.

With so few individuals left, the loss of even one North Atlantic right whale could have a severe impact on the overall population.

In their final decision, BOEM offers mitigation measures specifically aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales, but these measures are dangerously insufficient. While the mitigation tactics involve avoiding airgun usage during certain times of the year in right whale breeding grounds, these approaches are inadequate when you consider that the sounds from airguns are heard thousands of miles away from the source.

In short, using airguns off the coast of Delaware can adversely impact whales as far away as Florida.   

North Atlantic right whales aren’t the only ones who will lose out from this decision. More than 800,000 tourism, coastal recreation, and commercial and recreational fishery jobs could be affected.  

As just one example, seismic airgun surveys have been shown to dramatically depress catch rates of commercial fish species across thousands of square kilometers of ocean.

During the comment period, more than 120,000 comments were submitted to the government, with almost two-thirds of those comments being vehemently against BOEM allowing seismic airgun use in the Mid-Atlantic.

The decision to begin allowing seismic airgun testing has been strongly opposed by coastal municipalities, by members of Congress, by the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, by environmental organizations, and by more than 100 biologists, who in February called on the administration to postpone its decision until the full picture of wildlife impacts is better understood.

With so much at stake, and with so many people in opposition, it is astonishing that BOEM made this particular decision.

It is a decision that, in the case of the North Atlantic right whale, has potentially catastrophic consequences.


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