Trump Admin. Seeks Seismic Blasting in Search of Fossil Fuels, Endangering Marine Life

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In June, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) shared a proposal for the use of seismic air gun blasting in the Atlantic to look for gas and oil. NMFS offered details on requests it received from five energy companies to authorize blasting from the New Jersey/Delaware border to central Florida. The requests were previously rejected by the Obama Administration and seismic surveys have not been carried out in the mid and south Atlantic for about 30 years.

This revival of these requests is in accord with President Trump’s April Order to increase gas and oil exploration, which directed Interior Secretary Zinke to review a ban on drilling in parts of the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic. The order also contained a direction to “rescind or revise” a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) memo on the effects man-made sounds have on marine mammals. NMFS is an office of the NOAA within the Department of Commerce.

What is Seismic Air Blasting and How Does it Affect Marine Life?

Seismic blasting is the use of air guns blasts to map potential oil and gas deposits below the ocean floor.

“NMFS [has] seriously underestimated the magnitude and consequences of seismic blasting on whales and dolphins, which depend on their hearing to feed, communicate, navigate and reproduce,” says Jane Davenport, Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders) Senior Staff Attorney.


The blasts are louder than rocket launches, travel for hundreds and thousands of miles, and typically repeat about every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day. One survey would last more than 300 days and another would last an estimated 70, NPR reports. While Donna Wieting, director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, shared with NPR that acoustic monitoring would be used to detect marine mammals and blasting would be stopped if “sensitive species” were identified, environmentalists and marine biologists have repeatedly raised significant and scientifically-backed concerns about the dangers of these surveys.

According to estimates from the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, at least 130,000 marine mammals, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, would be vulnerable to disruption and injury from the blasts. There are only about 500 of these whales remaining and sadly, the species has already experienced a die-off this summer, in which seven were discovered floating lifeless in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off Canada.

Right whale. Photograph by Brian Skerry.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conveys that seismic blasting is known to silence baleen whales and cause them to leave their habitats, disrupt marine mammal foraging, displace fish and impair their healthy development, injure and kill invertebrates and fish, and compromise essential marine mammal communication. NRDC also points out the negative consequences any future drilling would have on the multibillion-dollar tourism and fishing industries that thrive on Atlantic waters.

A study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution in late June found that seismic blasting could further harm ocean ecosystems by causing a two to threefold increase in mortality for zooplankton. “Zooplankton underpin the health and productivity of global marine ecosystems and what this research has shown is that commercial seismic surveys could cause significant disruption to their population levels,” Lead Author and Curtin University and Centre for Marine Science and Technology Associate Professor Robert McCauley told

What is the Marine Mammal Protection Act Incidental Harassment Authorization?

NMFS is proposing to authorize these permits under applications for Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHA) within the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The MMPA “prohibits, with certain exceptions, the ‘take’ of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas.”

IHAs are one type of incidental take authorization — incidental take being defined as “unintentional but not unexpected.” Incidental take is authorized under the MMPA if NOAA finds that the taking would:

· be of small numbers,

· have no more than a ‘negligible impact’ on those marine mammal species or stocks, and

· not have an ‘unmitigable adverse impact’ on the availability of the species or stock for ‘subsistence’ uses.

Davenport of Defenders offers some insight into whether the proposed seismic blasting would fall within or fulfill these three determinations for incidental take — the short answer is “absolutely not.” Regarding the first criterion that the take is of “small numbers,” she says:

NMFS is proposing to authorize incidental take of no more than 30 percent of the estimated population of affected marine mammal stocks. This doesn’t pass the straight face test. Claiming that 30 percent of a stock is a small number can’t be squared with the plain meaning of the term, let alone the statutory purpose of the MMPA to limit take to infrequent and unavoidable circumstances to meet the overall goal of ensuring that marine mammal stocks are maintained at or restored to healthy population numbers.

Relating to the second criterion for incidental take, Davenport states Defenders “does not believe NMFS has shown that any single individual IHA will have a negligible impact.” She says an even more “damning” factor is that NMFS has not considered the potential cumulative impacts of all five seismic blasting surveys, which if approved, would “overlap both geographically and temporally.”

Davenport expresses that “the so-called mitigation measures simply aren’t going to protect marine mammals, either short-term or long-term, from the significantly harmful impacts of round-the-clock seismic blasting.”

Regarding the third criterion, she says that while subsistence rules do apply to marine mammals, these marine mammals in the Atlantic are not hunted for subsistence (as a means of survival), so the criterion is not relevant in this case.

Harbor porpoise.

What Can We Do?

Defenders and other environmental organizations call on those concerned with the well-being of marine life to contact NMFS. The Federal Register explains Jolie Harrison, chief of the Office of Protected Resources of the National Marine Fisheries Service, can be emailed directly at Comments regarding the five seismic blasting permit applications can be submitted until July 21. Physical comments can be sent to 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, M.D. 20910.

The Surfrider Foundation recommends your comments to NMFS be both personal and scientifically backed whenever possible and it offers links to a variety of related studies that can be referenced. These cover topics such as the effect of the blasts on marine mammal reproduction, communication, migration and habitat, and on the increased noise levels and adverse impacts associated with multiple gun arrays. The NRDC also provides links to a variety of studies on the effects of air gun blasting on marine life and created the video below to clearly illustrate the situation.