Seismic Testing Risks Marine Life in BC Oceans

“Exploring” BC’s oil reserves would put the BC marine environment in jeopardy before one drop of oil is extracted from the ocean floor.

by Jay Ritchlin, David Suzuki Foundation

Coastal communities, conservationists, First Nations groups and other concerned BritishColumbians breathed a little easier in December when the ‘Priddle report’ on oil and gas exploration on the BC coast was released.

This report, one component of a federal review of BC’s 32 year-old offshore oil and gas moratorium, indicated that 75 per cent of BC residents participating in the review, and 100 per cent of BC First Nations groups contacted, are in favour of keeping BC’s coast oil and gas free. 

Despite the report’s findings, a final decision on the moratorium is still pending. The provincial government and industry proponents continue to push for seismic testing – the “exploration” phase of oil and gas development – to proceed before a final decision is made. 

Their rationale? They need more information. They need to fill the science gaps which, by their definition, means starting exploration. They say they only want to go and “take a look.” 

Their solution? Begin exploration, with or without lifting the moratorium, and allow the government to go from there. 

The truth is that this purported research means seismic testing, one of the most destructive elements of the offshore oil and gas industry. Seismic testing will only tell geologists where oil and gas might be found. This would then be followed by exploratory drilling, another high-risk activity. Lifting the moratorium would open the coast to both of these processes. This “exploration” isn’t nearly as benign as it sounds. 

What is seismic testing? 

In the early years of seismic testing, dynamite was used to determine the potential reserves of oil and gas in a given offshore area. Today, seismic testing uses high-pressure air guns to blast the ocean floor, sending sound waves through the water, and causing reverberations deep within the earth. Seismic testing ships shoot between 15 and 20 air guns at a time (each air gun has a pressure capacity of 2,000 pounds per square inch) every 10 to 20 seconds across large areas where there may be potential for oil and gas deposits. These sound waves “bounce” off geological formations below the sea bed, and return to the surface, where they are recorded and the formations mapped on the seismic vessels.

What are the issues with seismic testing? 

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that seismic testing damages or kills many marine species. Norwegian fishermen have been complaining for years that catch rates decline when a seismic vessel enters their fishing area. Recently, hard science and a number of high-profile studies have drawn international attention to the serious long term effects of seismic testing on marine life. 

In 2001, international attention was focused on Sakhalin Island, in Russia’s far east, where a subsidiary of Exxon was undertaking seismic tests in critical grey whale habitat. At this time, the western Pacific gray whale had been declared a “critically endangered species” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) after a team of Russian and American scientists found that the population was under 100 whales. Scientists further determined that seismic testing in the area was forcing these vulnerable whales off their feeding grounds. 

In spite of this, seismic testing went ahead in the feeding areas, where whales were observed to be increasingly bony and emaciated. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) called for an end to seismic tests while the whales were feeding. Both international and local environmental groups continue to press the industry to stop expansion into whale habitat. 

The impact of seismic testing on whale populations was not only reported in Russian territory. Reports came of fatal strandings of beaked whales in Mexico in 1998 and again in the Galapagos Islands in 2000. These strandings occurred at the same time that seismic testing was being conducted in nearby waters. In 2002, there were also reports of humpback whale strandings off Brazil, during an offshore oil and gas survey that used seismic blasts. 

It is not only whale populations that are being adversely affected by seismic testing. In 2001 and 2003, record numbers of dead squid were found washed up on Spanish beaches. In both instances, it was found that geologists were conducting seismic surveys nearby. 

Further study found that these squid died a particularly gruesome death, with hearts and stomachs ripped open, ruptured organs and disintegrating muscles. Not unlike the dead whales found around the world, these squid were found to have badly damaged ears. Scientists hypothesize that this ear damage disoriented the creatures, causing them to float to the surface and suffocate. 

This summer, international attention was again focused on the effects of seismic testing on whales when the IWC released a report pointing to “overwhelming” scientific evidence that noise from military sonar tests and from oil and gas seismic testing are indeed doing serious short and long term damage to whales. 

The IWC also pointed out that the number of beached whales found may seriously underestimate the true extent of the damage done to whale populations — ongoing concern exists among scientists that the booming noise from seismic blasting can hinder whale-towhale communications, affecting their ability to navigate, kill prey, and reproduce. 

Closer to home, a new study released this fall by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that female snow crabs showed short and long term damage, including hemorrhaging and detached reproductive organs, after a 12-day seismic experiment off Cape Breton Island. These findings have both environmental and economic significance for the important east coast crab fishery. In BC’s Queen Charlotte basin alone, the crab fishery is worth approximately 22 million dollars per year. 

“Going out and taking a look” 

Exploring for BC’s oil reserves would put the marine environment in jeopardy before one drop of oil was extracted from the ocean floor. To lift the moratorium “for exploration purposes only” would be disingenuous, economically irresponsible, and potentially fatal for BC’s rich assortment of marine mammals and other marine life. 

The Queen Charlotte Basin, where much of the proposed seismic testing would take place, is acknowledged to have one of the richest marine floras in the world, supporting a variety of species that includes over 400 species of fish, 6,500 species of invertebrates, 121 bird species, and 29 species of marine mammals. 

The distinct oceanographic conditions of BC’s coast support the only known living glass sponge reefs on Earth, in an area proposed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. 

The Scott Islands, also proposed for potential oil and gas exploration, have been recognized internationally for their priceless bird habitat. Over two million seabirds live and breed on the islands every year. Three species — Cassin’s Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet and the Tufted Puffin — have globally significant populations in this small area. BC’s north coast is often likened to the Galapagos Islands for its ecological diversity. It attracts visitors from around the world for its unique and pristine environment. From sport fishing to whale watching, from kayaking to the multi-million dollar cruise ship industry, tourism provides more jobs to British Columbians than any other industry, and generates an estimated 9.5 billion dollars in revenues and 112,000 full-time jobs annually. 

BC’s commercial fishery — the lifeblood of many coastal and First Nations communities – would shoulder the greatest risk under oil and gas exploration. Recent statistics show that BC’s wild fisheries generate 545 million dollars annually. With scientific studies suggesting that seismic testing can destroy the swim bladders of a variety of species of fish, seismic testing seems especially reckless  and short sighted. 

Ninety per cent of the world’s biomass exists in the oceans. Understanding this is key to understanding the broader impacts of seismic testing. From crabs to squid to fish to whales, all marine life exists in a delicately balanced ecosystem, that is already threatened by pollution, overfishing, and the effects of climate change. 

Until now, the moratorium has protected BC’s coast from disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the more recent spill of 170,000 litres of crude oil off Newfoundland. The continental US has had a moratorium in place on offshore oil and gas exploration since 1991. From Jeb Bush’s Florida to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California, American policy makers and much of the American public believe that the risks far outweigh the benefits. 

When considering the global ecological importance and significant economic spinoffs of BC’s marine environment, it becomes clear that ours is a coast that requires stringent protection and ongoing advocacy – not a high-risk and low-benefit offshore oil industry. 

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[From WS January/February 2005]

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