New Science: Seismic Blasting Devastates Ocean’s Zooplankton

[Originally published June 22nd 2017 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

Seismic airguns exploding in the ocean in search for oil and gas have devastating impacts on zooplankton, which are critical food sources for marine mammals, according to a new study in Nature. The blasting decimates one of the ocean's most vital groups of organisms over huge areas and may disrupt entire ecosystems. 

And this devastating news comes on the heels of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposal to authorize more than 90,000 miles of active seismic blasting. Based on the results of this study, the affected area would be approximately 135,000 square miles. 

In the study, scientists found that the blasts from a single seismic airgun caused a statistically significant decrease in zooplankton 24 hours after exposure. Abundance fell by at least 50% in more than half (58%) of the species observed. The scientists also found two to three times more dead zooplankton following airgun exposure compared to controls and, shockingly, krill larvae were completely wiped out. 

Listen to the sound of a seismic airgun blastseismic_blast.mp4

 Audiogram of a single seismic airgun. Seismic vessels in the Atlantic will tow up to 40 airguns at a time, which will all blast simultaneously every 10 seconds for months on end.   Credit: Ocean Conservation Research (ocr.org)

Audiogram of a single seismic airgun. Seismic vessels in the Atlantic will tow up to 40 airguns at a time, which will all blast simultaneously every 10 seconds for months on end. 

Credit: Ocean Conservation Research (ocr.org)

The scientists used sonar backscatter, a method that reveals where animals are in the water column using sound, to detect zooplankton. They describe witnessing a large “hole” opening up in the backscatter as zooplankton were killed. Food chains are surprisingly simple in the ocean and zooplankton help form the basis of them, underpinning the ocean’s productivity. Significant damage to zooplankton will have cascading effects on animals higher up. That includes fish and marine predators such as sharks, marine mammals, and even seabirds. Adult krill provide an important food source for our largest marine animals: the great whales.

These devastating impacts on zooplankton occurred up to three quarters of a mile from the airgun. This is more than two orders of magnitude higher than the expected range of impact based on the results of previous studies; laboratory experiments and modeling techniques have estimated that impacts would only occur up to 33 feet from the airgun. This new study demonstrates the importance of validating scientific findings in the field.  

However, these findings are based on the results from a single airgun with a volume of 150 cubic inches. The companies proposing to conduct blasting in the Atlantic will use vessels that will each tow an airgun ‘array’ comprising between 24-40 airguns, with a combined value of 4808-6420 cubic inches.  The guns will all blast simultaneously, every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for months at a time. This means the proposed surveys could affect zooplankton over much larger areas.

 Krill represent a vital food source for many marine predators, including large whales. In the study, seismic blasts completely wiped out krill larvae.   Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Krill represent a vital food source for many marine predators, including large whales. In the study, seismic blasts completely wiped out krill larvae. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Nature study measured impacts observed in the first 24 hours following exposure to seismic blasts, but there is strong evidence to suggest longer term impacts following exposure to airguns. In marine invertebrates, damage to important sensory receptors called “statocysts” has been observed  to increase with time up to 96 hours following exposure to noise. Stress caused by exposure to seismic elicits a similar immune response in both lobsters and scallops,1 indicating that the blasts may impair the health of a wide range of marine organisms.

Because the blasts are so powerful and produce sound at low-frequencies, seismic noise is still detectable for some time, even after a seismic vessel departs. It raises the overall background noise level of the ocean and drowns out other natural sounds that are vital for the survival of many species.

Other impacts may be more acute. For example, noise from ships resembles how seismic blasts will sound from far away and has been shown to release stress chemicals in blue mussels to a level so harmful it degrades their DNA.2

With this additional scientific evidence of the harm seismic does at an ecosystem level, it is clearer than ever that the proposed permits for blasting along the Atlantic coast—from the New Jersey/Delaware border to Florida—should be denied.

_________________________________________________________________________________

1 J. Semmens, R. D. Day, Q. P. Fitzgibbon, K. Hartmann, and C. J. Simon, “Are seismic surveys putting bivalve and spiny lobster fisheries at risk,” Presentation at Oceanoise2017 Conference, Vilanova i la Geltrú, Barcelona, Spain, 8-12 May, 2017. Available here, page 92.

2 M. Wale, R. A. Briars, M. G. J. Hartl, and K. Diele, “Effect of anthropogenic noise playbacks on the blue mussel Mytilus edulis,” Presentation at the 4th International Conference on the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life, Dublin, Ireland, 10-15 July, 2016. Available here, page 213.

Atlantic Seismic Will Impact Marine Mammals and Fisheries

[Originally published June 5th 2017 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has proposed permits for large-scale seismic oil and gas exploration off the mid-Atlantic and south Atlantic coasts. This move overlooks the best available scientific evidence, which shows that noise from seismic airguns poses significant harm to marine mammals, and a wide array of other marine life, over vast areas of the ocean.

Whales are especially vulnerable to the intense low-frequency noise produced by seismic airguns.The mid- and south Atlantic are home to some of our best-known great whales. That includes blue whales—the largest animals to ever have lived on earth, fin whales, sei whales, and gregarious humpbacks. All of these species are endangered or protected. These waters are also part of the main migratory route and calving grounds of the North Atlantic right whale—one of the most endangered species on the planet. 

Seismic airguns produce loud, repetitive, blasts that rank just behind military explosives as the loudest source of noise in the oceans. The blasts repeat every 10-12 seconds, 24 hours a day, for months at a time, and are so powerful they can be heard up to 2,500 miles away. The noise occurs at exactly the same frequencies that great whales use to communicate. This means seismic blasts can disrupt vital breeding and feeding behaviors, and may lead to chronic stress that can impair health and lead to less successful reproduction and calf survival. Indeed, 28 scientific experts on the North Atlantic right whale warn that seismic blasting in the Atlantic may be a "tipping point," driving the iconic species to extinction.

 Lobsters experience severe damage to their sensory organs and immune system suppression following exposure to seismic noise   Credit: Brian Skerry/'National Geographic'/Getty Images

Lobsters experience severe damage to their sensory organs and immune system suppression following exposure to seismic noise 

Credit: Brian Skerry/'National Geographic'/Getty Images

Seismic surveys pose a threat to ocean life beyond marine mammals. Scientific evidence now shows that ocean noise—including seismic—can significantly harm fish and marine invertebrates, many of which are commercially important. Invertebrates such as scallopsand squid close to airguns during blasting can die or suffer severe organ damage. Airgun noise can also result in extensive damage to hair cells in fish ears causing deafness and to important sensory receptors responsible for orientation in invertebrates; in lobsters, these effects can last for up to an entire year following exposure.

Larvae and juveniles may be more susceptible to the harm of underwater noise than adults, possibly jeopardizing the sustainability of populations. Seismic noise has been shown to have more severe impacts on juvenile scallopscrabs, and squid.1 Also, the chronic stress from exposure to seismic noise can compromise the health of fish and marine invertebrates and associated fisheries.2 Exposure to seismic noise has been shown to increase breathing rates and stress hormone levels in fish, including Atlantic salmon and European seabass, and suppress the immune system of marine invertebrates, including scallops and lobsters.

Many species react to seismic blasts as if it were a natural predator, exhibiting behaviors such as rapid evasion, freezing, or hiding. These responses ultimately disrupt other vital behaviors, such as feeding and reproduction, and may increase vulnerability to predation. Playback experiments using noise from seismic airguns were found to elicit strong behavioral responses in both European seabass and Atlantic mackerel. For mackerel, these behavioral changes may make them less easy to catch; a finding remarkably consistent with anecdotal accounts from fisheries operating in the vicinity of seismic surveys. Commercial trawl and longline catches of Atlantic cod have also been shown to fall by 45% and 75%, respectively, five days after seismic surveys in the Barents Sea. Similar reductions in catch rates have been demonstrated in the hook-and-line fishery for rockfishduring seismic blasting off the California coast.

Seismic surveys have devastating economic and environmental consequences and the administration's reckless proposal to issue these surveys puts our oceans in jeopardy.

It is time to stop seismic.

It’s Orca Month! Celebrating Endangered Southern Residents

[Originally published June 2nd, 2017, on the NRDC Expert Blog]

June is Orca Awareness Month, a time to show appreciation for our beloved orcas and to encourage a culture of stewardship to protect these majestic animals and their fragile habitat.

Late last year, the Southern Resident orcas lost their long-time leader, Granny, who lived to be 105 years old. Six other family members were also lost in 2016. With only 78 individuals left in the wild, the survival of each orca is vital for this critically endangered population’s future.

These majestic animals are a beloved icon of the Pacific Northwest and hold particular cultural and spiritual significance for Northwest tribes. Southern residents are highly intelligent, social creatures that live and hunt in complex family-oriented communities. They teach the younger members of their families special skills they need to survive, and demonstrate a culture of cooperation and sharing.

 The survival of each Southern Resident orca is vital for this critically endangered population’s future   Credit: NMML/AFSC/NOAA

The survival of each Southern Resident orca is vital for this critically endangered population’s future 

Credit: NMML/AFSC/NOAA

Yet, despite our love for and understanding of our orcas, they continue decline at an alarming rate. In 2015, the Southern Residents were named by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as one of eight species most likely to go extinct in the near future unless immediate action is taken.

A goal of this year’s Orca Month is to raise awareness of how the very waters that the orcas call home are posing a serious threat to their survival. This unique population faces a barrage of pressures in these troubled waters including toxic pollution, underwater noise disturbance, oil spills, and above all, a lack of their main prey: Chinook salmon.

Also a highly endangered species, Chinook are the biggest and fattiest of Pacific salmon, and comprise 80-85% of a Southern Resident orca’s diet. Today, habitat loss and barriers to migration have decimated the Chinook salmon in the Northwest to a mere 10% of their historic numbers; in some basins they are holding on by a thread at 1%.

Southern Resident orcas will not survive without the restoration of their primary food source. Their fates are intertwined. No fish: no Blackfish.

 The troubled waters that the Southern Residents call home pose a barrage of threats to their survival   Credit: NMML/AFSC/NOAA

The troubled waters that the Southern Residents call home pose a barrage of threats to their survival 

Credit: NMML/AFSC/NOAA

But there is hope! There is still time to recover our Southern Resident orcas, but we need to restore salmon, reduce toxic runoff into Puget Sound, mitigate underwater noise disturbance, and prevent catastrophic oil spills, including halting the development of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

On the federal level, critical funding for NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other agencies is vital to addressing each of these threats. President Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate the very funding that is needed to save our orcas.

At the state level, we can help orcas survive by allowing more Columbia-Snake River salmon to migrate safely past dams to the ocean, including by increasing water releases (“spill”) over federal dams. More spill can help increase salmon populations in the Columbia basin, providing more prey for orcas.

Please help us spread the word that that June is Orca Awareness Month! Check out https://orcamonth.wordpress.com to learn more about Orca Awareness Month and upcoming events, and visit www.orcasalmonalliance.org to learn more about the Southern Residents and how you can get involved!

About Orca Month and the Orca Salmon Alliance

Orca Month was created a decade ago by Orca Network, a member of the Orca Salmon Alliance, and has since been officially declared by Washington State, and was also unofficially observed by Oregon and British Columbia last year.

The Orca Salmon Alliance is working to restore the orca’s salmon food supply in the orca’s core summer range in the Salish Sea, and along the Washington, Oregon and Northern California coasts. The overarching goal is to mobilize support and resources to stop and reverse the decline of southern resident orca and wild salmon populations.

The Alliance today includes the Center for Whale Research, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Oceana, Orca Network, Save Our wild Salmon, Seattle Aquarium, Southern Resident Killer Whale – Chinook Salmon Initiative, Washington Environmental Council, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. 

Tar Sands Pipeline Threatens Our Endangered Orcas

[Originally published April 20th, 2017, on the NRDC Expert Blog]

 A pod of Southern Resident orcas swimming off the coast of Seattle   Credit: NOAA

A pod of Southern Resident orcas swimming off the coast of Seattle

Credit: NOAA

Southern Resident killer whales—one of the United States’ most iconic and endangered species—are now facing a new and formidable threat: Big Oil. This time, in the form of the newly approved Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

In a time when we need to be transitioning towards a clean energy future, the Canadian government has approved a C$6.8 bn ($5 bn) project spearheaded by Texas-based energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan, which will lay nearly 1,000 km of new pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to Vancouver’s coast. The new pipeline would transport up to an additional 590,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day—more than Keystone XL—and increase oil tanker and barge traffic by 700%, to as many as 408 tankers every year.

 The approved pipeline will bring up to 590,000 more barrels of tar sands oil every day to Vancouver's coast   Credit: PIPE UP Network

The approved pipeline will bring up to 590,000 more barrels of tar sands oil every day to Vancouver's coast 

Credit: PIPE UP Network

Oil spills and noise pollution associated with the planned expansion threaten the shared U.S. and Canadian waters of the Salish Sea, which is home to the 78 remaining Southern Residents. The orcas are already fighting for their lives: starving due to dwindling numbers of Chinook salmon, being poisoned due to toxins and polluted water, and finding it harder and harder to communicate and find food over the increasing din of industrial noise.

Any additional impacts from the Kinder Morgan pipeline will likely drive our iconic orcas to extinction.

The Kinder Morgan pipeline also threatens the home and livelihoods of Coast Salish tribes and coastal communities, including fishermen, on both sides of the border. A catastrophic oil spill could decimate salmon and shellfish, which form the basis of the Coast Salish way of life and their economy. Increased vessel traffic poses safety risks to fishers and worsening noise pollution may negatively impact commercially important species.

 More than 400 massive oil tankers will pass through the Salish Sea every year if the pipeline is built   Credit: Danny Cornelissen/Wikimedia Commons

More than 400 massive oil tankers will pass through the Salish Sea every year if the pipeline is built 

Credit: Danny Cornelissen/Wikimedia Commons

But First Nations communities are working together and fighting back in the courts. They are challenging, through Judicial Review, both the Decision of the Canadian government to approve the project in November 2016 and the finding by Canada’s National Energy Board that the pipeline is in the public interest and that it is unlikely to cause any significant environmental effects. They are arguing that the Decision infringes on their Aboriginal title and rights, and that Canada breached its constitutional duty to consult with and accommodate First Nations.

What can you do to help? NRDC, and some other members of the Orca Salmon Alliance – whose organizations work to prevent the extinction of Southern resident killer whales by recovering the wild Chinook populations upon which they depend—support the goals of the “Pull Together the People vs. Kinder Morgan” campaign, a legal defense fundraising effort to assist the First Nation’s work to stop the project in the courts. Multiple events have been organized in the San Juan Islands, Anacortes, Billingham, and Seattle. Visit www.pull-together.ca for more information and, if you are in the Seattle area today, stop by the “Seattle v. Kinder Morgan” community supported fundraising event with members from the Lummi and Tsleil-Waututh Nations to show your support.

Bryde's Whales are a Step Closer to 'Endangered' Status

[Originally posted December 8th, 2016 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

Today, one of the United States' rarest and most threatened baleen whales are a step closer to receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act.

A little over 60 miles from the Florida panhandle, in the northeastern 'corner' of the Gulf of Mexico, lies the deep and unusually 'S-shaped' DeSoto Canyon that is home to the last individuals of a unique group of Bryde's whales.

Named after the 19th Century Norwegian whaler, John Bryde (pronounced "BROO-dus"), Bryde's whales are found in warm seas around the world, growing to 55 feet long and 90,000 pounds as they filter out plankton, crustaceans, and small fish using their large baleen plates.

 Photo: NOAA FIsheries

Photo: NOAA FIsheries

The Gulf of Mexico whales are highly distinctive from other Bryde's whales, however. They differ in size, communicate using unique calls, and genetic tests have confirmed they represent a genetically separate subspecies. Gulf of Mexico Bryde's whales are also distinctive in one other sense: a recent stock assessment estimated that only 33 animals remain, making them one of the most endangered species or subspecies of whale on the planet.

Fortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) today released their proposed listing for the Gulf of Mexico Bryde's whale as an "endangered species" under the Endangered Species Act, saying "we believe that the species faces a high risk of extinction."

NRDC petitioned for the listing under the Endangered Species Act in September 2014, citing the small number of whales, the limited habitat, and numerous potential threats in the Gulf's highly industrialized waters. After a thorough review of the best available information, NMFS agreed, concluding that energy exploration and development, and exposure to oil spills and spill response, are currently increasing the whale's risk of extinction. These concerns have been borne out by history: Desoto Canyon is located only about 50 miles east of the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Today, their habitat lies right in the path of oil and gas expansion into the eastern Gulf.

The whales also face daily risks from collisions with ships, deafening ocean noise from oil and gas activity, and pollution from a wide range of sources. There are few regulatory mechanisms to protect whales from these threats, and those mechanisms that do exist have been generally ineffective.

 Photo taken under NOAA Research Permit #799-1633 (NOAA)

Photo taken under NOAA Research Permit #799-1633 (NOAA)

The Endangered Species Act listing will not alone guarantee the recovery of the Gulf of Mexico Bryde's whale, but it will play an important role in compelling action, providing tools to protect the last few individuals, and coordinating recovery efforts. Given its narrow range in the Desoto Canyon, and myriad of existing threats, a regional cooperative effort between federal, state, and private sectors will be needed to conserve the whales and the habitat upon which they depend.

And the proposed listing could not have come at a more crucial time. Foreshadowed by the likelihood of increased interest from the federal government in energy exploration and development in U.S. waters, these remarkable animals will need every advantage to ensure their survival.