Under the Dome

Researchers recommend treating ocean seismic testing as pollution

Eight universities, including Duke, and environmental groups argue in a paper published Tuesday that high-decibel seismic testing for oil and gas in ocean waters should be controlled and monitored like pollution.

Researchers say seismic test impulses are so loud they can disrupt whales and other marine life by masking the sounds they rely on to communicate, navigate, find food and avoid predators. Longterm exposure can create stress and disorient them, the paper says.

The authors of the peer-reviewed paper, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, recommend ocean noise be treated like pollution, which would allow for standards and monitoring based on data.

Douglas Nowacek, a marine ecology and bioacoustics expert at Duke University, says there is urgent need to take these steps, especially with oil and gas exploration awaiting government approval as close as three miles offshore. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposes a buffer of 50 miles from the coast. Nowacek said seismic testing within three miles of shore is “excessive.”

In April, Gov. Pat McCrory told a U.S. House subcommittee that a 50-mile buffer would put much of the oil and gas offshore out of reach, and drilling farther out would be more expensive. McCrory has joined with a group of governors who are advocating for more offshore drilling, in hopes of sharing the money from energy production.

The Center for Public Integrity reported last year that the governors’ coalition draws on the research and resources of an energy lobbying company acting on behalf of an oil industry-funded advocacy group.

Nowacek wrote the paper with authors from Cornell University, Humu Labs (a Massachusetts-based company that sells computer platforms for researchers), University of St. Andrews, Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, University of California at Santa Cruz, Southall Environmental Associates (a California firm that uses science to support conservation management and environmentally responsible business, according to its website), and Duke University.