NOAA Approves Seismic Blasts off Coast of Md., Va.

The endangered humpback whale is among the species that could be impacted by seismic blasts.

The federal government has cleared the way for five companies to do seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, as a first step to possible offshore drilling for gas and oil.

National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gave final authorization, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to “incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals to companies proposing to conduct geophysical surveys in support of hydrocarbon exploration in the Atlantic Ocean.” 

That means NOAA Fisheries will allow seismic blasts even though they may unintentionally disturb marine mammals. The companies will be required to monitor acoustics, and take action to reduce the impact on animals. The required actions include vessels listening and watching for marine life, especially protected species. Companies must increase the seismic activity gradually “to alert animals in the area and reduce potential for exposure to intense noise.” And when certain sensitive species are nearby, they must stop blasting.

The geophysical surveys use airgun arrays to explore for hydrocarbons. A 2017 Presidential Executive Order encourages energy exploration like this. The NOAA Fisheries decision to allow blasting on the Atlantic Coast was met with outrage from conservation groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says there is no evidence that seismic surveys harm marine life, but a study it conducted in 2014 shows that nearly three million dolphins and half a million whales could be harassed, or worse, by survey activity.

Noting that these surveys are precursor to offshore drilling, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration Lisa Feld said in a statement:

“Allowing seismic blasting off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia is an unacceptable step towards drilling for oil and gas. Offshore drilling in our region would pose far too many risks to the health of coastal waters and the Chesapeake Bay, fishing, aquaculture, tourism, and all jobs that depend on clean water…. We need to run away from offshore drilling, not move towards it.”

-Meg Walburn Viviano