In response to recent criticism about their Summer 2015 Rutgers Seismic Study, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (L-DEO) has often said that their past studies have not led to marine mammal strandings. Clean Ocean Action expressed concerns during the project’s comment period this Spring regarding the project and the potential for marine mammal beachings. In response, L-DEO stated in its study’s 2015 Issued Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) “that Lamont-Doherty has not ever experienced a stranding event associated with their activities during the past 10 years that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has issued Authorizations to them. In the past decade of seismic surveys conducted carried out by the Langseth, protected species observers and other crew members have neither observed nor reported any seismic-related marine mammal injuries or mortalities.”
This statement fails to consider the repercussions of different studies conducted by the Observatory’s other boats over a lengthier period of time. In 2002 (13 years ago), L-DEO was taken to a U.S. District Court by the Center for Biological Diversity regarding the strandings of a pair of Cuvier beaked whales in the Gulf of California. These whales, which are widely known as the deepest diving marine mammals, often frequent depths of over 3,300 ft and typically avoid ships. However, their lengthy deep dives and ship avoidance were not enough to protect them from the impacts of seismic airgun blasting in the area. The off-duty NMFS scientists that found the beached whales found no physical indication of harm, but rather reddening of the cheeks, a symptom of physiological distress, hinting that the whales likely died due to burst blood vessels in their heads. As a result, a U.S. Magistrate Judge issued a temporary restraining order against the project, and all machinery was shut off immediately.
In this particular case, Lamont-Doherty was not using the Langseth, but rather the Maurice Ewing. However, despite the name difference, the project’s purpose closely resembles their proposed study off of the Atlantic coast. Beginning September 18, 2002, the research vessel started conducting seismic testing by traveling in a zigzag pattern off the shore of the Baja peninsula in an effort to map a rift that had been caused by continental plate shifts. Similar to the conducted 2014 study and the proposed 2015 study off of the coast of New Jersey, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was a sponsor to the 2002 Pacific Ocean study.
In the 2002 case, the Center for Biological Diversity claimed that the NSF’s seismic study violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which require the government to analyze the ecological impacts of studies as well as minimize the potential disruption of marine mammals. The NSF argued that due to the study’s location in Mexican waters, the NEPA and MMPA would not apply. However, it became clear quickly that the effects of the study would have implications for marine life far beyond international borders.
In 2005, the Maurice Ewing was used in a seismic study off of the Yucatan Peninsula for a project under the NSF, Lamont-Doherty and the University of Texas. Concerned scientists and environmentalists pointed to the 2002 California whale beachings as a cause for concern regarding the project in the Gulf. In addition, Rosario Sosa, former president of the Association for the Rights of Animals and their Habitat, said that activists had come across dead dolphins and turtles in Campeche, where seismic pulses were used to explore for oil.
L-DEO’s response to Clean Ocean Action’s concern fails to consider a wealth of information that can drastically affect how the project is perceived by the public. By only analyzing data within the last decade, they fail to include the previous strandings that were on record. In addition, they fail to consider harm done by other NSF vessels, and mention only the Langseth. While at the surface, these might appear to be minor oversights, the lack of consideration and analysis pose a significant threat to marine mammal, turtle and fish stocks off of the coast of New Jersey.