Posted by: The ocean update | April 17, 2015

Seismic shift for blue whales (Australia)

Seismic testing by oil and gas companies is exposing the blue whale to toxic levels of noise pollution. Photo : MR1805

Seismic testing by oil and gas companies is exposing the blue whale to toxic levels of noise pollution. Photo : MR1805

April 16th, 2015 (Andrew Darby and Lisa Cox). Australia’s largest animals, blue whales, are said to be at risk from “ships of deaf” run by the oil and gas industry.

After a shift in control of seismic testing from the Federal Environment Department to an industry regulator, the whales may be forced to run a cumulative gauntlet of noise, a study has found.

 Along the Australian coast, 67 per cent of key blue whale feeding and migratory areas will be exposed to seismic testing by the industry in 2014-15, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare study.

“Our analysis shows the Abbott government is failing blue whales, the largest and one of the most endangered animals on earth,” said IFAW marine campaigns manager Matt Collis.

“A moratorium on seismic testing for oil and gas should be declared in areas critical to blue whales for feeding and migration,” Mr Collis said.

The study’s findings come as the opposition and the Greens responded to revelations the Abbott government has been quietly granting permits to allow industry to look for petroleum in marine sanctuaries while it reviews 40 marine reserves set up by Labor.

The permits could lead to seismic testing in areas off the West Australian coast, where no mining exploration could have occurred if the government had not called a review.

Environment groups have taken the move as a sign the government intends to reduce the level of protection in the reserves once it completes its review.

The permit has been granted to Oslo-based company Spectrum-Geo, which wants to conduct seismic testing off the WA coast from Geraldton and the Abrolhos Islands, where three sanctuaries were put in place that would have forbidden mining activity.

The area provides important migratory habitat for humpback whales, blue whales, sea lions, and breeding habitat for the western rock lobster.

In seismic testing, an array of air guns towed by a ship is used to constantly fire explosive sound waves onto the seafloor, revealing the geology below.

Whales rely on sound to navigate, locate prey and predators and attract mates.

They are extremely sensitive to man-made noise pollution which can force them away from feeding grounds, cause stress, disorientation and at close range can damage their hearing, Mr Collis said.

The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association said it was a myth that offshore seismic surveying harmed whales.

 “More than four decades of seismic surveying field experience and countless research projects has shown no evidence to suggest that sound from oil and gas exploration activities in normal operating circumstances has harmed any marine species,” it said.

But Mr Collis said under the new regime, no information was available about the cumulative impact of seismic on the migratory blue whales as they moved through a succession of survey areas on the Australian coast.

A year ago, approval of surveys was shifted out of the Environment Department’s hands, to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said NOPSEMA’s “one stop shop” would maintain strong environmental safeguards through a more streamlined process.

A test of the new regime came with assessment for seismic testing in a blue whale feeding ground off Kangaroo Island, South Australia, refused for three years under the former process.

Mr Collis said after just three months under the NOPSEMA assessment, it was full steam ahead for the  “ship of deaf’, which would blast this whale habitat.

“Such is the new assessment system, we have no idea what the company actually submitted, as this was never publicly available,” he said.

NOPSEMA’s refusal to release details of its environmental assessments meant that it was impossible to tell whether the effects of cumulative testing were being taken into account, he said.

The two best-known blue whale feeding grounds off southern Australia were found by IFAW to be particularly hard-hit, with seismic testing planned over 93 per cent of the Bonney Upwelling​, south-west of Portland, Victoria, and at Kangaroo Island.

Neither of these areas has high-level protection in Commonwealth marine reserves.

NOPSEMA said in answer to questions that seismic surveys could only be conducted if environmental impacts and risks had been reduced to “acceptable levels”.

It said current practice was consistently with management measures set out in Department of Environment guidelines on interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales.

“NOPSEMA considers cumulative impacts through submissions of Environmental Plans,” it said.

Labor’s Tony Burke, who was the environment minister who declared the marine reserves, accused the government of wiping away Australia’s environmental protections by granting the permits.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the oceans, the forest or the atmosphere, this government hates anything that protects the environment,” he said.

Senator Rachel Siewert, the Greens spokeswoman on marine issues, called the granting of permits “shameless” and said the government to halt its “attack” on the reserves and reinstate the sanctuaries.

Senator Siewert said the revelations would stand as a test for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who had carriage of the marine reserves review.

“This news will stand as a true test for Environment Minister Greg Hunt. Will he stand by while our precious marine sanctuaries are basically given away to the petroleum industry or will he seek to protect these areas that have been identified for protection?” she said.

“To hear that sanctuaries under threat include important migratory habitat for humpback whales, blue whales, sea lions, and breeding habitat for the western rock lobster would be particularly distressing for Australians that value a vibrant marine eco-system off our coasts.”

Environment group Pew called on the government to suspend all industrial activity inside the reserves until the review was completed.

“If the government’s review is to be considered genuine, it is vital that the science behind the reserves is taken seriously and its assessment of areas that merit the highest level of protection is respected. No industrial activity should be allowed to take place in sanctuary areas,” Director of Oceans Michelle Grady said.

Ndlr Sibylline : there is NO “acceptable levels” for biodiversity. Seismic testing is a “Weapon of Mass Destruction”, nothing else and everywhere in the world. Listen the witness of a norway fisherman :

What’s behind seismic testing

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Airgun and Echosounders

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