“It's a mixed bag for sure,” said Nowacek. For whales there is direct a danger if the marnine mammals stray too close to the air guns. Currently the only way that danger is supposedly mitigated is by posting lookouts, Nowacek said. But how do you keep an eye out for whales when it's dark, cloudy of blowing 30 knots? he asked.
Further away from the source, the air gun blasts, which can go on for hours, run the danger of causing damage to whales in the same way that humans get very selective hearing loss working around some machines all day, day after day.
There is also potential damage to animal behavior, Nowacek said. That includes feeding, or raising young. Either one can have big impacts on whether animals survive or reproduce successfully.
“There have not been been these sorts of surveys off the East Coast since the 1980s,” said Jolie Harrison of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Office of Protected Resources. And the agency is doing what it can to make sure marine life will be protected, she said.
“People fought very hard in the 1980s to promote a character of the Atlantic Seaboard,” said Leila Hatch, who has worked on ocean noise at NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. “This is a change from that. None of us would argue that we are making decisions under perfect conditions. Our job is to take a precautionary stance.”