Conservation Update: Seismic Airgun Testing

by Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation

Published October 14, 2013

While the Mid-Atlantic coast has never been a hot spot for oil exploration, new technologies and pressure to cut our dependence on foreign energy sources has created renewed interest in discovering what lies just beneath the sea floor.

Recent offshore activity was cut short however in response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Later that year, all offshore drilling for petroleum deposits along the Mid-Atlantic coast was suspended until 2017. But 2017 is just around the corner, and oil and gas companies are requesting permission to survey for deposits under the ocean floor in anticipation of being able to drill in the near future.

The survey technique that will be used is called "seismic airgun testing." This survey technique uses sound waves generated by an airgun aimed towards the ocean floor to determine the possible locations of petroleum deposits. The sounds waves are reflected as they reach the bottom of the sea and are sent back towards the surface. The specific signature of the reflected sound waves can be interpreted to determine the composition of the below-surface substrate.

Critics of this technique are concerned that the level of noise generated by the airgun surveys is too extreme and will be harmful to marine life. They say the intensity of sound required to collect data from miles below the sea floor is so high that it has the potential to harm marine mammals, sea turtles and fish. Animals may strand, suffer from hearing loss and/or lose their ability to capture prey. At a time when hundreds of marine mammals in the region have succumbed to a deadly virus, some groups say the additional impact the surveys will have on wildlife is too great.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is currently considering accepting a draft environmental impact statement that would effectively open up the Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf (along the coast from Delaware to Florida) to seismic airgun testing. They are expected to make their decision in the spring of 2014.

If you are interested in offshore resource management or ocean wildlife, join us at the Aquarium on October 17th at 7pm, as we hear from experts on all sides of the debate regarding the need for domestic energy sources, survey techniques, current status of marine resources in the area, and the possible effects of testing on those resources!

Blast Zone Warning: Educational Forum 

WHAT: Learn more about seismic airgun testing and hear from experts: Oceana scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck, Dr. Chris Moore (Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council), Tommy Landers (Maryland Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network) and other professionals in the fields of marine mammal acoustics.

WHEN: Thursday, October 17 at 7pm

WHERE: National Aquarium, 501 E. Pratt Street, Baltimore, MD 21202

This event is free and open to the public!

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