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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

CoastLine: Zooplankton Mortality From Seismic Airgun Shocks Scientific Community

Hannes Grobe / Wikimedia Commons
Air gun array on a research vessel, used for reflection seismic profiles in the ocean

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President Donald Trump signed an executive order in late April to expand energy exploration drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.  The order puts in place a new five-year program, 2019-2024, that will supersede the earlier one – essentially reversing the Obama Administration’s decision to remove the mid-Atlantic region from consideration for offshore drilling. 

What’s different about this issue compared to so many other national points of debate – is that support or opposition doesn’t necessarily fall along predictable party lines. 

Even in the state of North Carolina – Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and Republican Congressman Walter Jones have both declared their strong opposition to oil and gas exploration off the North Carolina Coast.  Fellow Republican Representative David Rouzer of North Carolina’s 7th District – which includes coastal areas – supports it. 

On this edition of CoastLine, we’re not seeking input from policy advocates on one side or the other.  Rather, we hear from two scientists who can help us understand the new data that does exist about potential impacts and how this process could unfold. 


Doug Nowacekis the Repass-Rodgers Chair of Marine Conservation Technology at the Nicholas School of the Environment & Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. 

Ann Pabst is a Professor of Biology and Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  She is also President-elect of the Society for Marine Mammalogy

Segment 1

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: The last time we tackled this topic on CoastLine was two years ago 2015. Doug Nowacek, you were part of that discussion at that time. There was really a paucity of data available on the impacts of particularly seismic testing on marine life. And Doug Nowacek, you were one of the few experts in the world I think at the time that could actually speak to it from both experience and data that you'd looked at. So I want to find out from you what's new. But let's start with Ann Pabst. What do we know now about who lives in the waters off the coast of North Carolina?

Ann Pabst: Great. Thank you Rachel. It's a great question. In a couple of years has passed since the first time we addressed this question. We have learned more about the marine mammals specifically the cetaceans the whales and dolphins and porpoises that live off the coast of North Carolina. There's a wonderful paper done by very smart young guy named Jason Roberts who is at Duke University a colleague with Doug and a good friend and colleague of ours who gathered up a lot of survey data from multiple agencies and ran some beautiful models thinking about and helping us predict where marine mammals are going to be. And one of the things that was really startling about that research is that right off our own coast Cape Hatteras is the single site with the highest species diversity of Cetaceans anywhere along the Atlantic coast and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. And that suggests that you know our water we all know our waters are important but it also points out how important it is for multiple species of endangered, threatened, protected and vulnerable cetacean species so we have a lot of really interesting marine mammals here.

The other thing that's happened is that actually one of our undergraduate honors students did her honors thesis on looking at all of the sightings that we've had of the North Atlantic right whale of course the species that were really most worried about because they're so highly endangered. And unbeknownst to all of us until that analysis was done. Amelia Johnson discovered that we have right whales in the mid-Atlantic waters every month of the year and that it's not just moms heading down to calving areas and moms and calves coming back it's adult and juvenile males, it's juvenile females, it's social active groups, it's animals that are likely feeding. We have those animals that need the most protection in North Carolina waters virtually year round. So those were those were new insights into the diversity and the very kind of special case that North Carolina waters present for mammals.

RLH: So you're saying that there is not a period of time then at all. There's no month or or season in the year when right whales are not off the coast of North Carolina.

AP: That's true. That's absolutely true. North Carolina is important year round to right whales as well as many other species of cetaceans.

RLH: Doug Nowacek, what do we understand in 2017 about the impacts of seismic testing on marine life that we didn't understand two years ago?

Doug Nowacek: Yeah we do have some very good new information and I'm going to go from the largest creatures that and I both study to some of the smallest and perhaps the most fundamentally important study that has come out in the last couple of years was just recently in nature by group out of Australia led by led by Dr. McCawley and that study showed a dramatic effect of seismic air guns on zooplankton, and when we say that it's a huge class of tiny animals swimming around in the ocean hoovering up phytoplankton. So they're forming the base of the food web. And what McCawley and his colleagues found was that to a staggering 1.2 kilometer distance away from a relatively small air gun array, they found an increase in mortality. Natural increase over natural mortality rate of 200 to 300 percent. So if a natural mortality rate was 10 percent then we're looking at two to three times that in mortality of zooplankton.

RHL: And we're talking about the impacts from a single air gun?

DN: This was I believe was a single air gun and this is what is obviously important in terms of the animals themselves. But the mechanisms also have we need to learn more about, and I think we need we certainly need to understand that better in hopes that we can mitigate it.

RLH: And you just put that in perspective compared to an array that might take place off the North Carolina coast?

DN: Surprisingly a single air gun in its in its amplitude can be some significant portion of a whole array. The reason they put these air guns in arrays. One of the main reasons is to create a focal beam of sound that goes down straight into the water. And so it does it does a good job of that. But the overall amplitude is significantly higher with an array. I think when we start to think when we think about these implications for zooplankton we can 1.2 kilometers is far enough. And it could cause enough damage as it was but a single air gun versus an entire array is a substantial increase in power to that array. And those are the arrays that are proposed for the Atlantic five different companies.

RHL: How serious is that kind of a mortality rate? Does it mean that how quickly would zooplankton reproduce and how quickly could that population kind of replace itself? And what does that mean for the animals that feed on it?

DN: Not being a zooplankton ecologist I shouldn't venture into that too much. They are fairly quick reproducers they don't take as long as mammals certainly to reproduce. My guess is that their generation time is on the order of days to weeks. So but the point is if we take out and in the mid-Atlantic, there has been some research in the past on the natural mortality rate which is at around 18 percent and in that letter that we just submitted to the Fishery Service.

RLH: And when you say we?

DN: Oh I'm sorry. Yeah. So a group of scientists we submitted a letter to the Fishery Service to comment on the proposed incidental harassment authorizations which is the process that the G&G companies the geological geophysical companies have to go through to then be able to conduct the surveys. And we just ran some basic numbers and we're talking in the trillions, of hundreds of trillions of additional zooplankton mortality and the numbers are big and impressive. But I think the real take home message is twofold at least one is that zooplankton are a primary prey source for snapper and grouper, which are incredibly important for the state of North Carolina and the entire East Coast.

DN: They are also food for right whales and mentioned

RHL: Ann Pabst, can you talk about what the potential impacts could be if all of this zooplankton disappeared from the food supply? Would these creatures find other things to consume or would they die?

AP: Rachel, it's a great question and I too am not so plankton specialists. But I think to add onto it Doug was saying and to answer your question, this study I think stunned the scientific community. We had known from some previous work that there was the potential for the impact to have but to have the kinds of reductions in losses and additional mortalities that were seen was something that I don't think anyone I know was prepared to really kind of absorb. Animals are very good at finding food. All right. I mean that. Right whales, I think one of the most amazing things about right whales is that they can move along the Atlantic coast and find these patches of copepods that were not very good at finding. But if we take away a food source in a place that organisms are used to finding a food source at a time when organisms are used to finding that source then we are disrupting their behavior. We're disrupting their foraging capabilities we're disrupting their entire ecology perhaps their reproductive output. Animals then will have to adapt to that. Do I think that that would cause lots of whales to die because of this? I don't think so. I don't know what the impact is. I don't know that any of us really fully understand that and we've never had to worry about that off our coast.

RLH: Now is that the next step then in research? Is there a way to capture that?

DN: That's certainly one. One very good next step is to figure out what would happen in that situation and how quickly would they would they come back.

RLH: There is additional research on stations that tells us more about mother and calf communications. Doug Nowacek, can you speak to that when it comes to we're talking about right whales?

DN: Yeah absolutely. Thanks. There's two there are two main pieces of information to bring together. One is a study actually on bowhead whales and bowheads are the closest cousin to right whales. Well, they're as closely related as anybody gets to our right whales off the coast here. And a study that synthesized more than a decade of work in the Arctic looking specifically at the response of bowheads to air gun sounds and what was staggering about this study was that the bowhead started to show responses that being changing their vocalization patterns at far, far lower levels than the fishery service currently regulates. And just to put that into numbers the fishery service is still regulating on a level of 160 decibels as something that would cause a behavioral change and a behavioral change could be stopped feeding, stop nursing, change of forging pattern, change in vocal pattern. Well the level at which Susanna Blackwell and her colleagues with bowheads started to detect change was more like 100 decibels. And the difference between 100 and 160 is not just 60. It's six orders of magnitude. So at levels that we could barely detect the bowheads are already noticing something's changing in their environment and trying to compensate for it. And by the time they get they received levels of 160 the whales that actually almost stop vocalizing altogether.

My interpretation is that they got so loud that they just decided to wait until the sound went away and then try to communicate afterwards. Tying that to right whales, another recent study looked at mother calf communication and humpbacks another baleen whale. And what these folks found was that the mother and calf whales vocalizing very low levels very quietly and maintain their contact and to do things like mediate nursing to start nursing. And that's not surprising at all. And there are other examples of what we call acoustic crypsis which means the animals are trying to be quiet so they're not detected by potential predators. And it's a very smart strategy so that you aren't especially when you have a young calf even young.

Young right whales young whales are vulnerable to predation for sure by killer whales and large sharks and things. So taking these two things together. The mother and calves are presumably making very quiet sounds, the environment being polluted by noise not just from seismic service, but also from all the ships we have on the ocean and all the rest of it, getting in the way of that communication space. And I think those are those are two very important things especially given the recent deaths of right whales that we can ill afford to lose a young right whale get separated from its mother. 

RHL: Ann Pabst, can you speak to some of these right whale mortalities that we've seen in Canada?

AP: Yeah it's a very unfortunate event where it seems to be that we've had a focal event where perhaps as few as 10 but as many as 12 right whales have died in a very short period of time in Canada in areas where we currently don't have the same sorts of protections in place. Canada is very good about protecting right whales and the U.S. is very good and protecting them at least from ship strike. Right Whales are beginning to wander and they're going into places where they don't have the same level of protection.

And we've lost this number of animals. The early evidence is that there is evidence of blunt trauma, which is consistent with a ship strike. And then also chronic and perhaps acute entanglement in fishing gear. So the causes of mortality are likely to be human induced. And when we talk about 10 animals it doesn't sound like a lot, but we're talking about a population that before this event is estimated at about 500 individuals so we're looking at over 1 percent of the entire population. There is modeling that's been done in the past that indicates that you know we're losing is as few as one perhaps two adult female right whales and certainly an adult female was involved with this last mortality event.

The population is non-sustainable and that is a very difficult thing to think about especially when we layer on other impacts and maybe just also following up on Doug's point about that the crypsis and mothers and calves, the kind of survey data that we would maybe layer on to that is that it's very rare to see a right whale calf born but our aerial survey team characterized that off the coast of Florida. And the most important part about that is they did that at an offshore site a very pelagic site. It was thought that right whales gave birth and very near shore coastal waters. But that's not true. And the sites where the site that this right whale gave birth which was which was really fun and big and happy news that site would not be protected in any way by the mitigation strategies that are put in place for the incident of harassment authorizations that NOAA is considering right now. So the only known right well birth occurred at a physical site that would not be protected. And that's something that I think should give us pause.

RLH: And when was that documented? How long ago?

AP: It was in 2008 and we are we have not seen a right whale calf born at that same site since, but it's fair to say that since we've only observed across all survey efforts only two right well calves being born ever. Despite decades of looking that it's still a very important observation.

RLH: Why is it so hard to gather that kind of observational data?

AP: I guess I mean the simple answer is it's a big ocean and we're not looking at all parts of it at all times so we focus our survey area survey effort in areas where we think animals are going to be. And so that coastal areas of Florida are very well surveyed during the winter months when we know that there are going to be right whales there. The offshore sites aren't art surveyed as often and I mean it really is a big ocean and we can't be in all places.

RLH: You're talking about aerial surveys so eyeballs and cameras and that sort of thing. What do we know, are there marine mammals that we need to think about protecting that cannot be accounted for through aerial surveys? Doug Nowacek.

DN: Yeah absolutely. I think Ann and I can provide a one two punch on this. Beaked whales are very important and amazing species actually I mean this is there are a physiological marvel. This is an animal that really is more appropriately referred to as a surfacing animal rather than a diving one because it dives to over 3000 meters. In fact, we've had a tag on one that went to more than 3500 meters so we're talking almost two miles underwater. 

RHL: What is two miles? Give us some perspective on that. What do you find at two miles deep two miles deep?

DN: Well off the coast of Cape Hatteras in the place that Ann described with this incredible diversity and density. A place that I like to think of is the Serengeti of the Atlantic. And so it at thirty-five hundred meters is probably the bottom and it's in these caverns, these canyons that we don't know how what's down there but the whales are certainly down there feeding. So they're down there picking food off the bottom and doing a very good job of it. So when the beaked whales are on these dives they're almost constantly clicking. So they produce echolocation clicks just like a bat does. Just like we do when we use sonar they send out a little pulse of sound and it bounces off whatever's in the environment comes back to them and they can interpret what's out there. And because they're producing those clicks we can hear them. If we have instruments in the area which we have. There are lots of instruments in the water so we're able to document the year round presence of beaked whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, all of these animals that we can go out and see and Ann's team does a very good job at it, but they can't be out there at night and in all weather and so acoustically we can we can detect those animals all year round.

Segment 2

RHL: Luther from Southport, welcome to CoastLine, you're on the air.

Luther: Yeah. I just had a comment. Years ago I worked for NOAA and I had a lot of contact with Northeast fisheries building equipment mainly for plankton and sampling. And your comments relative to the impact of air guns on plankton just amazed me because I just never thought of that. But I know how important plankton are. In the fisheries, it was so important in determining your class designation so that they would collect samples of copepods and cytoplankton, and it was hugely important and the fact that air guns impact that population amazes me.  

DN: Yeah, I would agree with Luther.

RHL: Luther, thank you so much for weighing in. We have an email from Jim who writes as a retiree from a large international oil drilling and logging company I know very well how this industry is struggling in today's economic reality. The move away from fossil fuel for everything from energy to plastics is going forward. And therefore the need for oil is going to be less and less. This along with more efficient means of production the need for more drilling is not going to be financially viable in the future. So the idea of drilling for oil off the coast of North Carolina to me seems ridiculous, says Jim and I am not surprised that most politicians in our area are against it. Jim writes, why David Rouzer is in favor is quite puzzling to me.

RLH: Doug Nowacek, you had a comment.

DN: Yeah on the caller's comment which I thought was really nice to hear from folks who spent some time out on the ocean and have an appreciation for these things. What I want to do is follow up and let listeners know that there were two ways that this was documented so it wasn't just this sort of a serendipitous thing that it was very directed study, and they used both scientific echo sounders which are calibrated, very fine tuned instruments to measure the animals in the water column but they also towed nets through the water to document the mortality rate so that was that was an important piece for me as a scientist to give it the credibility that I think it deserves.

RLH: We've talked briefly we've thrown around the words threatened and endangered but Ann Pabst can you kind of clear this up? You've made it very clear that the right whale population, scientists think there are maybe 500 of them in the world. And so when you lose possibly 12 that's a significant percentage of that population. Can you just sort of name the species that would be of most concern off the North Carolina coast?

AP: Sure or I probably will miss somebody's favorite species but EIS's study and NOAA's review of it suggests that they'll be at least 34 species of marine mammals cetaceans that will be impacted and many of those species actually visit North Carolina. We are the Serengeti of the Marine World, and so we think of animals from a conservation point of view in this hierarchical point. So right whales are most critically endangered with just a few hundred individuals left. The large baleen whales, blue whales, fin whales, sei whales are also endangered. And it's important I think to point out that all of these species are endangered as is the large tooth whale, the sperm whale because we historically hunted them. We as a species removed them from the globe but because of their importance to us in our early industries as raw natural resources so our view of marine mammals has really dramatically changed. They were a resource for us to take in our early history and now we think that they are animals to be protected.

RLH: That seems like a long time ago. They haven't recovered.

AP: Well that's a very interesting point. So right whales, when you think about this, right whales have experienced direct human impact for over 1000 years. They were one of the very first large whales ever to be whaled because they were quote unquote the right whale to hunt. They are coastal and their distribution, so they have access to early primitive technologies to get out into the marine environment. They are relatively slow. They are slow swimmers as compared to the very fast, beautiful streamlined blue whales and fin whales. They also float when they're killed because they are naturally obese, wonderfully obese animals. They have a very fat blubber layer; it's wonderfully obese.

RLH: You don't hear those two words put together very often.

AP: But they've been hunted initially off the coast of Europe and in the Bay of Biscay where they were hunted first by the Basques and they were hunted where you can find them easily and those were the nursery grounds. So calves and adult females were hunted and then as you hunt out that area they were moved north and west all the way across the Atlantic to our coast. What we have now left is a remnant population of these animals that survive that direct impact then they were negatively impacted by shipping and incidentally being taken in fishing operations so they've had over a thousand years negative human impact. So it's perhaps not surprising that they haven't made a recovery.

RLH: We have an e-mail that Zach asks What do we know about the impact on marine life after the BP Gulf oil spill? Are there continuing facts.

AP: I think both of us can answer that to a certain extent. It was difficult to measure the impacts on marine mammals pelagically during that event because there was very little kind of survey effort that occurred, but the impacts on coastal bottlenose dolphins, especially in certain areas like Barataria Bay have been quite significant. And there are some very good research that's been done by our colleagues and NOAA and their colleagues who participated looking at animals going out and capturing them and looking at their health status and how they've been responding. And it's very clear that there have been now long term impacts on the overall health of these coastal species. The seismic surveys aren't necessarily going to be impacting animals that are only coastal and their distribution and they've been taken. We've had mitigation steps in place to try to limit that. So the two kinds of impacts are different but. But the Deepwater Horizon will have impacts on the overall health of that ecosystem for decades, if not much longer.

DN: If I may in addition to what Ann said, there's a couple of salient points. One is that obviously a catastrophic spill or a large spill off the coast North Carolina would be catastrophic. Spills happen very often from oil rigs and pump and pipelines. It's not anybody's fault. It's just a difficult technical thing to do. To be out on a rough ocean and drill and have pipelines and things and so those smaller spills, and the physics along our coast make it inevitable that some of that material will make it into the into the estuary, so you know we have to decide if that's what we want to do. With the Gulf of Mexico I think it's a really important additional point to make. There's been should we come back and yes we will let you make that point when we come back. Also want to hear about your experience helping to mitigate impacts on great whales off the coast of Russia.

Segment 3

RLH: Doug Nowachek, you were getting into a follow up on Zach's question about what had happened since the BP accident in the Gulf of Mexico.

DN: Thank you for going back to that; I was going to make a somewhat larger or broader point about the Gulf of Mexico in general, which is obviously a very rich area for oil and gas, has been for many decades. And one of the questions that I get quite frequently is well there have been shooting seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico for decades, and we don't see any effects. The problem is that we've never looked.

RLH: What do you mean?

DN: There's been one research project in the Gulf of Mexico that was focused wholly on sperm whales, that was relatively short. It yielded some very interesting results in terms of sperm whales actually foraging less in the face of seismic surveys. So a telltale sign something that we should have actually looked into more. But there's been no synthetic look at what has happened to populations of sperm whales before and after a seismic survey started, for example. And so this idea that it has no effect in the Gulf of Mexico, I would just throw the question back and say well maybe we should look, and if we think about it in the Atlantic we have the opportunity actually to look. We have many species that we don't know how they respond to seismic activity. And if this is to be permitted to go ahead one line of thought is we should do some experiments to see how they do respond before we actually unleash the full arrays of surveys.

AP: I just want to follow up on Doug's really good point. It was an uncontrolled experiment. So if we don't know what the environment was before we introduce an anthropogenic impact, we don't have a logical leg to stand on. To say that there is or is not an effect, you have to really have data, quantitative data and that's hard to do for many of these species because as one of my colleagues who studies fishes says you know they're invisible, they're underwater for most of their life. So you have to use very important and specialized technologies to be able to do that. Nobody was asking that question when seismic first started in the Gulf of Mexico. So we cannot say that there was no impact. And also one of the other comments is often, well if animals couldn't live there than they would they would leave. Right. If this is such an important thing that could leave, well animals like sperm whales and beaked whales have to live in very specific areas and that is areas of deep continental shelf breaks where their preferred prey, which are these wonderful deep water squids and octopi, mostly cephalopods live. And so if that's where their food is, it's maybe hard to leave. We all accept some issues in our life that we will bear with right because we can't get up and leave. So I think those kind of blanket statements need to be challenged just a bit to determine whether there are actually data available to test those statements.

RLH: Doug Nowacek, you spent some time helping oil and gas producers off the coast of Russia to mitigate impacts on grey whales. How did you do that?

DN: And I think this is actually, in some way the model that we could that we could learn from the National Union for the Conservation of Nature. IUCN, famously the keepers of the Red List convened several years ago a panel of international experts to try to mitigate and minimize the risk to, in this case great whales off the coast of Sakhalin Island which is in the Russian Far East, it's just north of Japan. For those of you looking at your globes, this is the only known feeding area for this population of whales, in particular mother-calf pairs. And we've worked very diligently and very hard to find ways of mitigating, minimizing the impact of seismic surveys of other offshore activities and in large measure we've been successful in that the population certainly hasn't crashed. It shows some signs of growth, but I do think it's worth looking at the results of that. And, in fact, one of the only places that we've been able to document a reduction in the probability of calf survival was in these grey whales and in a year of extraordinary industrial activity off the shelf. And so in all of our years of trying in this case we certainly have documented this occurrence, and I think this is one of the other lessons is that if we if we set up proper scientific experiments and controls then we can actually detect these things. And if there's no effect then we say there's no effect, and if there is then we then we try to deal with it. So I think that's there's a couple really good lessons in that study

RLH: Ann Pabst, you told me earlier this week that UNCW and Duke have just received funding from the Environmental Assessment Program, the Bureau of ocean energy management, which is the federal agency that would be overseeing this energy exploration off the coast to carry out a project that's called spatial and acoustic ecology of marine mega-fauna. Tell us about that project. What do you hope to learn from that?

AP: So it's a wonderful collaborative effort between Duke and UNCW and a great international team. And I guess they're kind of two primary goals. One is to better characterize the very special marine mammal fauna that exists off our off our coast, especially those animals that might be particularly vulnerable to seismic activity including the deep divers: sperm whales, beaked whales, but also the other species that live in that area and to better understand their biology and their behavior, their acoustic behavior to enhance their good management and conservation. The other is a really exciting new path for us which is to create these kind of platforms for citizen science to be able to bring in more citizen observations of these animals because as Doug has said you can't be out everywhere looking but lots of citizens are. And so to be able to bring in citizen science into these very public databases so that those data can be quality checked and then used for proper management conservation. So we're very excited about both of these arms of this new research project.

RLH: So help us understand the process now. Where we are in the process? First of all do you feel like you'll have enough time as researchers to explore some of these areas that you both have said pretty clearly we don't understand thoroughly enough before, and actually am I putting words in your mouth? Is that what you're saying that we don't understand enough to move forward or is that a fair characterization or not?

DN: Well I would say there's two sides to that coin, which one is we can and as we often do we end up studying from proxies. Right we take conclusions from lab animals all the time about you know human drugs. Right. So we rely on those kinds of studies and so we do have a lot of information on bowheads, for example as a proxy for right whales. But at the same time we don't know how calf and mother right whale pairs will react in the face of a lot of seismic surveys. So that's the other side of that coin that we don't know enough about specific species and how this place that we've described will be impacted. I mean this is a place where these animals not only are they the highest densities and diversities in the whole of the Western North Atlantic but that's where they live. That's home. And whether they will stay there or not is really an open question.

As far as you know answering questions like will it impact the population which is a really important thing to ask, and it is something that is brought up over and over again. Particularly a couple of years ago Dr. Bill Brown who's the chief environmental officer at BOEM, a wonderful fellow, in one of the science notes, stated that there has been no demonstrated population level impacts of seismic surveys on the marine mammal population. And there's a lot made of that point. But in a subsequent science notes the same good Dr. Bill Brown said just because we haven't seen that population level effect doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

And I think there's some analogies that are that are good to keep in mind things like how long did it take us to figure out that DDT was bad for bald eagle eggs, right? Or how long did it take us to actually figure out that smoking caused cancer? These things we can't prove these things overnight and they take they take time and deliberate effort, and I think we have the time. Yes, so we have the time because of what somebody in the e-mail said. We're awash in oil and gas in the U.S. right now we are exporting oil and gas. The only imports of oil as I understand it, well virtually the only ones come from our friendly neighbors to the north. So this is not an issue that we're pressed for right now. And really you can make economics and legal arguments about how that oil and gas is more valuable to the people of the United States which to whom it belongs is more valuable in the ground for years to come. So and I think that would give us the time to move as we have with IUCN, and in the grey whales in a deliberate fashion where we could do these things wisely.

RLH: What is an IHA? And what will that mean for the process?

DN: So, sorry you asked about the process and the pointy headed scientists went in a different direction. So the incidental harassment authorization is part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act or MMPA, which was passed in 1972 and as a little side note, those of you who care about the MPAA, it's an important time because there are efforts to change that law that would remove some of these protections from marine mammals and so for anyone who appreciates these animals it's an important time to be in touch with your representatives to make sure that law is not tinkered with. So the incidental authorization, if you're going to have some activity that will incidentally take or harass, hunt, kill any marine mammal you have to apply for an authorization to do this. And as the fisheries services' job at the National Fish Reserve as part of NOAA, it's their job to determine whether this activity will or will not have a negligible impact or will impact small numbers of any of those populations. So that is the process that we're in right now and the Fisheries Service is contemplating the parallel process, actually processes at BOEM, the Bureau of ocean energy management. The hearing that was in Wilmington the other night and the one that's in Morehead City tonight is the new as you mentioned early on the new process of revising the five-year plan and we're at the very early stages of that. And at this point what BOEM's looking for most is actually input from governors and from legislators to understand whether their states are interested in this activity.

RLH: And there is that coastal zone management act that you've talked about. This is a federal law that essentially says if a governor says this particular kind of activity does not align with the state's idea of its identity or what might be beneficial for the state then the governor has the power to stop that activity from happening, even though we're talking about federal waters. Is that right?

DN: I'm not being an attorney not being a legal expert. There are there are levers in the so-called CZMA, the coastal zone management act that the governor can pool and say that the federal plans are inconsistent with the state plans whether the federal government listens to that governor or not is another issue. Governor Martin of North Carolina in 1990 successfully made that argument and had North Carolina removed from consideration in that go round of this discussion.

RLH: So you're saying and I understand you're not a legal expert. From a legal point of view that says this is basically you know the federal government is able to say we'll take your thoughts under advisement. It doesn't mean...

DN: That that's the way I understand it.

RLH: And even though we've said this doesn't fall along partisan lines there are also letters to Secretary Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior signed by senators and members of Congress from both parties who say they're strongly opposed to this kind of activity along the East Coast and in the Atlantic.

DN: Indeed if I may add that there's been a piece of legislation introduced into the house by Representative Mark Sanford and Representative LoBiondo from New Jersey who happened to both be Republicans and that would actually alter the outer continental shelf lands act, which is the governing piece of legislation for the development of the outer continental shelf. That would take the mid-Atlantic the South Atlantic the Straits of Florida all off consideration, out of consideration for a 10 year moratorium which is what happened for Florida many years ago.

RLH: Do you have that that legislation is sitting in it and environmental committee right now? Any idea about the prospects for that?

DN: I wish I knew.

RLH: There is also the outer continental shelf governors coalition and that is a collection of governors. They have the mission of expanding areas available for offshore energy development. Governor Pat McCrory previous Republican governor was a member of that coalition and I think he was the chair at one point. Membership has shrunk to six. It's the governors of Maine, Alabama, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Mississippi with that kind of patchwork. How will that work in terms of state in point to how the federal government might proceed?

DN: I don't know for sure. I think if they if all of the South Atlantic, mid and South Atlantic governors could speak with one voice it would probably speak more loudly. But I know I'm pretty sure that the governor of South Carolina has indicated that that's not consistent with South Carolina's plans either. And so if North and South Carolina and I know the attorneys general of Virginia and Maryland have also entered their Please do not develop this activity then I think if they could all speak in concert that would be one thing, but the outer continental shelf governors is a strange beast to me.

RHL: And can anyone explain the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality as role in this? They are part of these public hearings that are happening. There is one Wednesday night which is tonight if you're listening to the live show in Morehead City and there is a third hearing on Thursday in Manteo, which is close to these areas of diversity that we've been talking about.

DN: So DEQ right now they are basically gathering information for the governor as the governor puts in his comments to BOEM on August 17th and regular citizens can put their input into the governor by August 15th and governors really looking for how much support there is one way or the other.

Further resources:

Article on the study examining the mortality rate of zooplankton after the use of a seismic air gun:


NOAA Incidental Harassment Authorization website:


Incidental Harassment Authorization applications pending for seismic surveys:


Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.