Title: Taking of marine mammals incidental to specified activities; taking marine mammals incidental to geophysical surveys in the Atlantic Ocean.
Docket ID: NOAA-NMFS-2017-11542
Agency: DOC-NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service
Comments Close: July 21, 2017 (extension from original close date July 6, 2017)
'Five applicants propose to conduct deep penetration seismic surveys using airgun arrays... Seismic surveys are one method of obtaining geophysical data used to characterize the subsurface structure, in this case in support of hydrocarbon exploration.' Company-specific plans are available in the original text of the notice. 'All companies requested authorization for the incidental harassment of marine mammals,' which will cover 'the statutory maximum of one year from the date of issuance.'
This document provides notice of the proposed authorization of “take” of marine mammals for five separate companies. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has grouped these authorizations together 'because the specified activity, specified geographic region, and proposed dates of activity are substantially similar for the five separate requests for authorization;' however, they do 'consider the potential impacts of the specified activities independently and make preliminary determinations specific to each request for authorization.'
In this context, “take” refers to the harassment of marine mammals. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, “harassment is defined as: “Any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which (i) has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (Level A harassment); or (ii) has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering (Level B harassment).” NMFS can grant authorization for incidental take of marine mammals if they find that the taking 'will have a negligible impact on the species or stock(s), will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock(s) for subsistence uses,' and if mitigation, monitoring and reporting of take meet requirements.
The authorization process was initiated when NMFS received individual applications from four companies between August 18, 2014, and September 5, 2015. NMFS posted the applications for public review and sought public input in July of 2015. A fifth company applied after this comment period, so was published separately for public comment.
After the public comment period closed, NMFS received revised versions of several applications, and determined that 'these applications are adequate and complete at this time and are substantially similar to other applications previously released for public review.'
In addition to authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the seismic survey proposals were subject to a required Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, with participation by NMFS. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, programmatic environmental impact statements evaluate the effects of broad proposals or planning-level decisions.
Finalization of the National Marine Fisheries’ Service proposal will issue incidental harassment authorizations for the take of marine mammals during seismic survey activities by five companies that 'provide services, such as geophysical data acquisition, to the oil and gas industry.' The proposed seismic surveys utilize air guns for hydrocarbon exploration 'within the US Exclusive Economic Zone from Delaware to approximately Cape Canaveral, Florida,' in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic planning areas.
'The five applicants propose to conduct deep penetration seismic surveys using airgun arrays as an acoustic source. Seismic surveys are one method of obtaining geophysical data used to characterize the subsurface structure, in this case in support of hydrocarbon exploration. The proposed surveys would be 2D surveys, designed to acquire data over large areas.'
The temporal extent of the survey activities vary by company, ranging from 155 days (CGG) to 208 days (Western) of seismic operations. During each day, operations would typically occur for the full 24 hours.
Mitigation plans are described fully in the notice. Some measures that will be taken include 'monitoring by independent, dedicated, trained marine mammal observers' as well as acoustic monitoring. NMFS 'also include measures that might not be required for other activities (e.g., time-area closures specific to the proposed surveys discussed here) but that are warranted here given the proposed spatiotemporal scope of these specified activities and associated potential for population-level effects and/or take of large numbers of individuals of certain species.' Additionally, exclusion zones will be in effect for all marine mammals except small dolphins under certain circumstances. 'An exclusion zone is a defined area within which occurrence of a marine mammal triggers mitigation action intended to reduce potential for certain outcomes, e.g., auditory injury. If a marine mammal appears within, enters, or appears on a course to enter this zone, the acoustic source must be shut down (i.e., power to the acoustic source must be immediately turned off).'
Request for Comments: NMFS is specifically asking for comments that are 'relevant to marine mammal species that occur in U.S. waters of the Mid- and South Atlantic and the potential effects of geophysical survey activities on those species and their habitat.' Any 'comments indicating general support for or opposition to hydrocarbon exploration or any comments relating to hydrocarbon development (e.g., leasing, drilling) are not relevant to this request for comments and will not be considered.'
Environmental groups (e.g. the NRDC, Oceana, National Geographic) along with many scientists have come out against these seismic surveys because of the potential impact on marine life. Several scientific groups have written to the presidential administration since this permitting process was initiated. In 2014, 75 marine scientists sent a letter to the Obama administration expressing concern of “significant, long-lasting, and widespread” harm to East Coast marine mammal and fish populations. According to these scientists, “The Interior Department’s decision to authorize seismic surveys along the Atlantic coast is based on the premise that these activities would have only a negligible impact on marine species and populations. Our expert assessment is that the Department’s premise is not supported by the best available science. On the contrary, the magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region.” Another letter from a different group of scientists in 2016 specifically addressed concerns about the endangered North Atlantic right whale population in the region.
While impacts on marine mammals tend to generate the most attention in the media, “seismic surveys have been shown to displace commercial species of fish, with the effect in some fisheries of dramatically depressing catch rates. Airguns can also cause mortality in fish eggs and larvae, induce hearing loss and physiological stress, interfere with adult breeding calls, and degrade anti-predator response: raising concerns about potentially massive impacts on fish populations. In some species of invertebrates, such as scallops, airgun shots and other low-frequency noises have been shown to interfere with larval or embryonic development.” To this end, various fishing groups and Fishery Management Councils (South, Mid-Atlantic and New England) have also expressed concern about the seismic surveys. According to a news release from Oceana, there are “125 East Coast municipalities, over 1,200 elected officials, numerous commercial and recreational fishing interests, and an alliance representing over 41,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families that have publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic air-gun blasting."
A recently published peer-reviewed paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution has caused further concern among scientists and environmental groups. In a statement about the study, the lead author explained: “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.”
On the other hand, the oil and gas industry are pushing for the surveys in order to map potential drilling sites. This would contribute to the fulfillment of President Trump’s April executive order aimed at expanding drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Exploratory seismic surveys are necessary for future drilling operations in this region because no surveys have been conducted in the area for at least 30 years. Oil and gas companies will use the information obtained by the seismic surveys “to make informed business decisions regarding oil and gas reserves, engineering decisions regarding the construction of renewable energy projects, and informed estimates regarding the composition and volume of marine mineral resources. This information would also be used to ensure the proper use and conservation of OCS energy resources and the receipt of fair market value for the leasing of public lands.” (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management).
The motivation for the aforementioned executive order is to reduce the United States’ dependence on foreign oil imports. According to the US Energy Information Administration, while US net imports (net imports = imports – exports) of petroleum from foreign countries in 2015 were at the lowest level since the 1970s, net imports were still approximately 25% of US petroleum consumption.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has address scientific concerns about the impacts of the seismic surveys on marine life by using the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, existing seismic mitigation protocols, and available scientific literature to adjust the suite of mitigation measures proposed by the applicants in order to “reflect what we believe to be the most appropriate suite of measures to satisfy the requirements of the [Marine Mammal Protection Act].”
The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) "considers potential impacts on 13 different types of resources (e.g., marine mammals, fish, benthic communities, and cultural resources), as well as cumulative effects from oil and gas exploration and other human activities in these areas. The PEIS also considers the potential effects from 11 different ‘impact producing factors’ on these resources. Of these factors, sound from geophysical survey sources presents the highest potential for impacts.” (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management). In response, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management worked with NMFS and several other agencies to develop a comprehensive mitigation strategy that, according to their report, focuses on “(1) avoiding injury from exposure of air gun sound sources to marine animals in close proximity to the source; and (2) reducing the potential for behavioral disruption.” The preferred course of action identified in the PEIS includes “aggressive” mitigation measures.
The industry groups themselves not only cite the extensive mitigation measures as reason to move forward, but also point out the fact that seismic surveys have been conducted in the US and around the world for decades with few negative impacts (per 2014 testimony by Dr. James Knapp for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Oversight).