Petition Seeks to Stop Blasts and Protect Whales

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The conservation organization Clean Ocean Action is circulating a petition to stop the planned firing of loud air guns into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey. Whales, fish and other marine animals could be injured, seriously disturbed or driven away by the air guns.

A team of geologists plans to use the air guns to map ancient changes of the coastline of the Eastern United States. With that map the geologists, led by Gregory Mountain of Rutgers University, hope to measure how sea levels have changed during the past 60 million years in response to dramatic natural climate changes, such as the Ice Ages.

However, Clean Ocean Action charges that the experiments will hurt the local tourism and fishing economies, along with the wildlife. The organization also noted that the geologists’ data could benefit the fossil fuel industry, according to the National Science Foundation award abstract for the air gun study.

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The air guns blast sound at levels of from 246 to 253 decibels, according to the Office of the Federal Register documentation related to the Rutgers study. A chart on the Dangerous Decibels website shows that level is approximately twice the level of a jet plane engine at 100 feet. The EPA considers exposure to 70 decibels per 24-hour period to be the acceptable level to avoid hearing loss in humans.

The 240+ decibel blasts in the Rutgers study would continue every few seconds, 24/7 for 30 days. However, the geologists have filed for a permit to, “disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering,” per the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Five marine animal specialists will be on board the Rutgers’ research vessel to monitor for mammals or turtles with a designated radius of the ship, according to a project summary. The specialists will stop the air gun firing if they spot wildlife. The summary also stated that the study was timed to minimize disruption of animal behaviors.

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Clean Ocean Action accused the geologists of misrepresenting how the timing of the study would affect the marine wildlife.

A growing body of research has documented how loud sounds created by human activities harm marine animals. For example, one study published in PLOS ONE earlier this year found that humpback whales dramatically reduced their singing when air guns were in use nearby. As far back as 1986, biologists observed bowhead whales avoiding underwater air gun blasts that reached over 160 decibels in a study published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Photo: A humpback whale leaps. Credit National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Wikimedia Commons 

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