Growth & Development

Sonic Cannons Could Endanger Marine Life in S.C. Waters

Seismic Tests Could Open Door to Offshore Drilling

By Rodney Welch
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
atlantic dolphins
The seismic blastings can deafen dolphins.

The Obama Administration’s recent approval of seismic blasting on the Eastern Seaboard could have an immediate negative impact on marine life, and long-term consequences for the coast if it leads to offshore drilling, according to local conservationists.

The decision affects the coastal waters of a seven-state region from Delaware to Florida.

In a July 18 statement, Walter D. Cruikshank, acting director of the U.S Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the decision came about after working with federal agencies and reviewing public input.

“The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine and coastal environments,” he said.

Seismic blasting is a means of discovering oil resources by use of a seismic airgun, or sonic cannon, which is placed in the water and dragged along the water by a boat. The airgun is trailed by rows of sound sensors.

As the American Petroleum Institute explains it, the airgun releases compressed air into the water, creating sound waves. The sensors record how long it takes for the waves to bounce back, which also determines the location of petroleum reserves.

API officials say that seismic blastings are scheduled so as not to disrupt the mating season of marine animals, and that explorations always begin with a low-level warning signal to warn off any underwater animals.

But for conservationists, the risks are still enormous. The sonic blast sent across the ocean floor is said to be a hundred times louder than a jet engine and can deafen both dolphins and the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

“The main impact on marine mammals has to be hearing,” says Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director of the Coastal Conservation League in Charleston. “That’s how they hunt and how they communicate.  It’s disruptive across the board, and potentially leads to death in these individuals.”

When marine animals are no longer able to communicate, they abandon their habitat trying to get away from the noise, says Coastal Conservation League program director Katie Zimmerman.

Perhaps the biggest impact would be on the North Atlantic right whale, of which only some 400 remain in existence.

“That’s something we’re very concerned about,” says Alan Hancock, program director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina. “The North Atlantic right whale is endangered, and their calving grounds are off the coasts of North Florida, Georgia and southern South Carolina.”

The sound also interferes with the ability of fish to look for food and communicate.

Davis says that previous environmental assessments have shown as many as 138,000 marine animals could be affected by seismic testing, resulting in injury or death, and that doesn’t even include the impact on fisheries.

Seismic blasting is also the first step toward offshore drilling. For some, that means jobs. For others, it means a Deepwater Horizon oil spill waiting to happen.

Hancock says the East Coast has managed to stave off offshore oil exploration because past projections have indicated that there isn’t enough oil in the South Atlantic to warrant the risk.

“Any oil or gas that would be produced from the South Atlantic would be a drop in the bucket compared to global supplies of oil and gas,” he says.

While the prospect of offshore drilling has been welcomed by Gov. Nikki Haley and Senators Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott — the latter has drafted legislation allowing for oil exploration — Congressman Mark Sanford has opposed federal legislation that cuts states out of the process.

Sanford was one of five House Republicans who recently voted against the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act. Sanford said the bill allowed rigs to be built three miles off shore “in plain sight from the beaches of the Isle of Palms or Hilton Head, with no ability of anyone in the state to impact that decision.”

Hancock says mayors along the coast have also been concerned about the “potential impact of offshore drilling on the tourism economy as well as the fishing industry.”

Not only that, offshore oil rigs would not be impervious to hurricanes.

“The frequency of hurricanes means that any offshore drilling off the coast of South Carolina,” Hancock says, “would just be all the more risky and all the more potentially costly for South Carolina’s coast.”

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