By Stefanie Jackson — Local efforts by an international organization for ocean conservation, Oceana, are helping drive the movement against offshore drilling in Virginia by creating public awareness of the risks it poses not only to Eastern Shore citizens but also to marine life in the surrounding waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay.
Reports on the devastating impact of major oil spills are well-known, from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 to the Deepwater Horizon spill 21 years later, but even the method used to find oil is dangerous to marine life.
It’s called seismic airgun blasting, and it uses pressurized air blasts to create sound waves that penetrate through the water to the ocean floor – where oil deposits are hidden – and echo back to the surface.
These airgun blasts generate some of the loudest noises in the ocean after military explosive testing. A ship tows an array of 12 to 48 airguns at once, blasting every 10 to 12 seconds for several days, weeks, or months. They can be heard underwater up to 2,500 miles away – the same distance as a flight from New York to Los Angeles.
The blasting can damage the hearing of some fish and elevates stress hormone levels in others, impeding their survival. It elicits varying levels of alarm response in fish, affecting their speed, schooling patterns, and position within the water column.
As a result, catch rates are reduced by 40 to 80 percent for fish like rockfish, blue whiting, haddock, and Atlantic cod.
Seismic blasting can negatively impact the development of shellfish and cause physical injury or even death.
It also affects whales, who rely on sound for communication, navigation, and feeding. Seismic blasting can interfere with whale communications and impair their hearing. It also elevates whale stress hormones, leading to a compromised immune system and behavioral changes.
Seismic blasting has led to reduced or silenced whale calls, disrupting communication between females and their young or potential mates.
Sea turtles will erratically swim away from blasting and can become entangled in survey equipment.
Since President Trump signed an executive order in April 2017 to expand offshore drilling and the Department of the Interior reversed a Jan. 2017 decision to deny seismic blasting permits, Oceana is concerned that the issuance of these permits is imminent.
Approval of the blasting permits could result in overlapping survey areas and increased impact on marine life.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is the permitting agency for seismic airgun blasting. The National Marine Fisheries Service also would have to approve Incidental Harassment Authorizations before blasting could begin.
In the event the permits are approved, Oceana recommends action to mitigate the impact to marine life, such as third-party observation of whales, dolphins, and sea turtles and stopping blast activity when those animals are present.
Seismic airgun blasting is also discouraged during the calving or nesting seasons of threatened or endangered species of marine mammals, sea turtles, and fish.
As a greener, more economically beneficial means of energy production using offshore resources, Oceana recommends offshore wind instead of offshore drilling.
Offshore wind would create 1.5 times more Virginia jobs than offshore drilling, which would create no jobs on the Eastern Shore.
Offshore drilling would threaten about 91,000 Virginia jobs, 95 percent of which belong to the tourism and recreation industry that contributes about $5 billion to the state’s gross domestic product. More than 3,000 miles of Virginia coastline are also at stake.
“Offshore wind produces clean and renewable power that helps cut carbon pollution and does not run the risk of a catastrophic oil spill that could threaten fishing, tourism and recreation,” Oceana’s promotional materials state.
“When oil and gas run out, so do the jobs, but Virginia will never run out of wind.”