Nfld. & Labrador

Scientists cast doubt on seismic testing environmental mitigations in N.L.'s offshore

The tests are known to harm marine life, but steps being taken to prevent that aren't effective, say some scientists.

Measures are 'nice in theory' but ineffectual, says biologist

Right whales, and other species of whales, depend on sound as their primary tool to communicate, find food and navigate the ocean. (NOAA/NMFS Permit #17355)

Jack Lawson spent part of this past summer listening for whales around Newfoundland, using recorders moored underwater to track their movements and hear what man-made sounds they may encounter.

In replaying the data, one noise made itself known above all the rest.

"All you can hear — 24 hours a day, for months on end, every 10 seconds — is the boom of a seismic array going off at various distances from our acoustic receivers, and this has made it very hard for us to detect some species," Lawson, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans research scientist who specializes in marine mammals, said in September.

"Boom" might not do justice to the sound a seismic array can produce.

Arrays are collections of seismic air guns that dangle behind specialized vessels and send pressurized air hurtling down to the sea floor. What comes bouncing back contains potentially lucrative data: in Newfoundland's offshore, such tests are used to search out new sources of oil in the hunt tor future extraction. In 2020, seismic testing spanned from late May to early September, according to PGS, the company contracted to carry it out.

"Offshore, it's a fantastic amount of seismic activity," said Lawson. 

The sound the guns make rank among the loudest human-made activities; the New York Times last year pegged its noise levels at 260 decibels underwater. To compare, the sound of a jet taking off is an eardrum-rupturing 150 decibels in the atmosphere (water is denser than air, and so enables sound to travel farther, and faster).

The guns make it hard for Lawson and his team's recorders, with the technology confusing the pulsing calls of right whales with seismic activity in the distance, and kindling a brief spark of hope for insight into a species on the brink of extinction.

DFO scientists thought they'd recorded tens of thousands of instances of right whale calls in the Flemish Pass in 2019, Lawson said.

"[But] when we actually went through and manually reviewed these, none of them turned out to be real."

Seismic vessels like this one are distinctly shaped, with their long flat sterns dragging behind them streams of seismic testing guns.

Mitigation measures fall short: scientists

Complicating scientific research is one thing, but seismic testing can cause damage to surrounding undersea life, from disturbing those massive right whales to decimating mostly microscopic phytoplankton. Understanding those effects precisely is a work in progress, but knowledge of harm has been around for decades, and as Newfoundland's offshore has developed so too have mitigation measures.

There's a multitude of them: the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, the province's offshore oil regulator, has an elaborate web of authorizations, assessments, monitoring requirements and other environmental elements around seismic testing. DFO advises the C-NLOPB, and has crafted in its own words, "minimum standards" to mitigate seismic sounds underwater, standards that are in the hands of the offshore regulator to implement.

Ian Jones, a biologist and professor at Memorial University, is one of those casting an environmental eye over offshore seismic testing and finding its current mitigation policies lacking.

"Sounds great in theory. It sounds really great," said Jones.

"The question is really, well, how effective is it? And basically, once you start to look at the design of this … it appears to be, to put it generously, extremely ineffective," he told CBC Radio's The Broadcast in October.

One of Jones's areas of concerns is marine observers: the people hired to scan the seas during seismic operations for certain species within a 500-metre "exclusion zone" around the guns, with the authority to halt testing depending on what they spot.

But Jones says seismic testing can take place 24/7, even amid fog or heavy seas, and he questions then how effective sight can be.

"When it's foggy or when it's dark, there's no visual coverage," he said.

Memorial University professor Ian Jones says current data shows current mitigation practices are 'extremely ineffective.' (Gary Locke/CBC)

CBC News reported in 2019 that some wildlife observers had little experience, with no university degree requirements and only short training courses to their credit. Jones said he has corresponded with one experienced observer who recounted that many of their colleagues were inexperienced, and missing or misidentifying whales.

"That sort of threw things into topsy-turvy for me in relation to, well, if the observers can't detect and identify whales, then the mitigation strategy isn't a viable mitigation strategy," Jones said.

"So you have a combination of perfect storm of things that seem to be preventing the so-called mitigation strategy for seismic damage to whales not working."

Monitoring suggestions

Jones isn't the only scientist with questions.

In a 2017 paper, two scientists, including DFO's Hilary Moors-Murphy, dissected DFO's "Statement of Canadian Practice" — that document of standards meant to be a guiding light for seismic activity — to see if its measures may protect certain at-risk species such as right whales, and to point to gaps and make suggestions.

The review found that marine observation, as it exists, falls short. Relying on sight-based monitoring is flawed, given the often ferocious weather conditions in the North Atlantic. 

"One of the things we suggest is that whenever possible — especially in conditions of low visibility, so if there's poor weather or poor sea states or even during nighttime periods — that there could be other technologies that could be used to help monitor a safety zone," Moors-Murphy told The Broadcast in November.

Those technologies range from night-vision goggles, to radar, to passive acoustic monitoring — that is, listening to what's happening under the water to detect whales and other animals. None of these additions gets the job done on their own — some whales might not make enough noise, often enough, to be heard — but Moors-Murphy's paper suggests a combination is better than eyesight alone.

Observers' qualifications should be standardized, as should their workflow, such as capping watch shifts in order to prevent fatigue, the paper says.

In a statement to CBC, the C-NLOPB said it does use acoustic observations, although the CBC has previously reported use in past years has been voluntary.

"Based on the extensive monitoring, data collection and reports from the past few years, there are no indications that marine mammals or seabirds were significantly affected by seismic operations," the C-NLOPB said.

The regulator said work was stopped 39 times between 2017 and 2019 because marine mammals were spotted. (Data from 2020 is still being calculated.)

While seismic testing is known to damage whales or disrupt their behaviour, there remain large gaps in knowledge. Even less is known about the tests' impacts on other forms of marine life. (Submitted by Catalina Gomez/DFO)

'An awfully short distance'

All those work stoppages took place within the 500-metre exclusion zone, a radius around the blasts under the eye of those marine observers to keep marine life out of the harm from the most intense seismic sounds. But where that number comes from stumps scientists.

DFO's statement of practice doesn't explain why 500 metres was chosen, said Moors-Murphy, and sound doesn't quite obey such a distinct delineation.

"Sound can propagate differently, in different areas, or different times of year. It's possible that sound can actually be occurring outside that 500-metre range that is still quite loud," she said.

"From our knowledge of whales' vulnerability to loud noises, 500 metres seems like an awfully short distance," said Jones. "So basically what the conclusion is, is that this number has been pulled out of a hat, by somebody, for some reason, but it's unclear why."

Jones pointed to research that recommends if acoustic blasts are within 45 kilometres of a human diver, their activities should be monitored closely.

"It seems like there's a bit of a double standard if you're a humpback whale versus a human diver," he said.

The offshore regulator stands by the set distance.

"Existing scientific evidence and the application of a precautionary approach revealed that beyond a 500 m safety zone, sound energy from seismic activity is unlikely to cause adverse impacts on marine mammals and sea turtles, under many circumstances," said the C-NLOPB in its statement, which adds that environmental assessments may deem a need to enlarge that zone.

A different way to try to protect species at risk, Moors-Murphy suggests, would be to apply some science: study the way sound moves, how long and far it takes for it to drop to a level that wouldn't hurt varying types of marine life, and create thresholds for damage.

"Then you would establish your safety zone based on that," she said.

That poses multiple challenges, as Moors-Murphy writes in the paper "significant knowledge gaps" abound, and for many vulnerable species, like blue or right whales, no sound level thresholds exist at all. Plus, expanding a safety zone also means expanding the work of the monitors, even as their current work practices remain problematic.

But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Moors-Murphy said some of the paper's recommendations have already been enacted in Nova Scotia, where a 600-metre zone was used during a seismic testing operation a few years ago.

Hilary Moors-Murphy is a Nova Scotia-based research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

DFO's second look

The scientific discontent with the status quo appears to have sunk in at the federal government level.

DFO's set of rules and recommendations for offshore seismic testing dates from around 2008, but the department told CBC in a statement that work is underway to update it. Last year, DFO reviewed its seismic testing mitigation measures, and in 2020 published a report that stated there was enough new scientific information available to warrant another look.

"Based on this recent science review and recommendations, DFO will lead a process to update of the statement in consultation with partners and stakeholders," the statement says.

The C-NLOPB said it's aware there may be changes ahead.

"The C-NLOPB will remain engaged on this matter as part of our ongoing collaboration and co-operation with DFO. We will respond to any new recommendations for updated mitigation measures as they are provided by DFO," it said.

The federal government is going even further. It's in the midst of creating a plan to address non-natural noise in Canadian waters, called Canada's Ocean Noise Strategy. The plan is asking for public input until mid-January, with a final document expected in 2022.

While it's unclear what teeth that plan may have, ocean noise will still be an issue two years from now. Despite unprecedented struggles in Newfoundland's offshore industry in 2020, the company that runs its seismic testing, PGS, says there are plans to continue its work until at least 2024.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The Broadcast

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