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Study: Seismic blasting in Gulf of Mexico hurts dolphins, whales

photo of an adult Bryde's whale in the Gulf of Mexico. A new study says using seismic testing to find oil and gas deposits in the ocean is also harming dolphins and whales. [Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]
Published Aug. 28, 2017

For the past six months, a battle has raged over a proposal to allow oil and gas companies to perform seismic testing to search for deposits of petroleum off the nation's Atlantic coast.

What many may not realize is that the controversial testing technique involving underwater blasts from airguns has been used for decades in the Gulf of Mexico. It's still going on, too. The government issued 22 permits for seismic tests in the gulf last year. So far this year it has issued 11.

This month, a federal agency finally produced an environmental impact statement on the practice: It says the blasts of sound used to detect the presence of oil and gas have likely been harming whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico all this time — causing loss of hearing, disrupting mating and feeding habits and forcing the mammals to abandon their natural habitats.

Seismic testing can even be fatal.

The study comes as no surprise to the environmental groups opposing it.

"These dynamite-like blasts are likely to have significant, long-lasting and widespread impacts on the behavior and survival of fish, sea turtles, dolphins and other marine mammal populations in the region," said Erin Handy of the environmental group Oceana.

To U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, that's a good reason to stop seismic testing, particularly in the eastern gulf, which is off-limits to drilling through 2022. Nelson is part of a bipartisan group of Florida officials trying to extend the moratorium on drilling in the eastern gulf for another five years, through 2027.

FROM 2012: Oil from Deepwater Horizon spill still causing damage in gulf 2 years later, scientists find

However, an industry spokesman contended that there's no evidence that any marine life has ever been harmed by its seismic testing.

"The oil and natural gas industry has been operating safely and successfully in the Gulf of Mexico for decades without injuries to marine life," said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute.

The way the seismic tests work is simple. As ships tow the airguns through the gulf, the guns repeatedly shoot loud blasts of compressed air through the water and deep into the seabed. The impact reflects back to sensors that can then detect buried deposits of oil and gas.

The guns fire every 10 to 12 seconds. The underwater noise, say scientists, is equal to the sound of someone setting off dynamite over and over.

For decades the federal agency in charge of offshore drilling — known as the Minerals Management Service prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — handed out permits to allow this kind of testing in the gulf without any concern about its effect on marine life.

Critics of the practice noted that part of the problem — as with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster — was that no one was ever required to do a thorough study of the effects on marine life. The monetary damages paid by BP for the oil drilling disaster has resulted in a boon of spending on scientific studies of the gulf.

"Very little is known" about the impact of seismic testing in the gulf, said John Filostrat, a spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Starting in 2002, another federal agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, pushed for a study of the effects of seismic testing, said Michael Jasney of the environmental group known as the Natural Resources Defense Council. The mining agency wouldn't do it. Finally, he said, a coalition of environmental groups sued in 2010.

A settlement resulted in an agreement to conduct just such an environmental impact study. In the meantime, all sides agreed to put measures in place designed to limit the impact of the seismic tests, Handy said.

The final version of the report, issued earlier this month, found that the seismic tests could hurt millions of whales, dolphins and other creatures in the gulf — but that its impact could be blunted by implementing safety measures.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is expected to release a final decision on whether to continue issuing the permits this fall — in fact, as soon as September, according to Filostrat.

"The important underlying point is that the ocean is an acoustic world, a ocean of sound," said Jasney. "These animals depend on their ability to be heard for their survival and to reproduce."

The environmental groups contends the new measures being proposed aren't sufficient to make up for the damage, Filostrat said, while the oil industry contends they're too stringent.

Meanwhile a Florida historian contends the study shows that it's time to end the practice altogether.

"It defies the logic of a first-grader to go against your own research that screams as loud as air-gun blasting that seismic testing in the gulf should stop," said University of Florida professor Jack E. Davis, author of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

"We've now reached a tipping point when its time to put our inventive genius to work to devise alternatives to destruction," Davis wrote. "This is not simply about whales; it's about the sea and obliterating a vital organ in the biosphere that supports human life."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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