Offshore drilling for oil is a hot button issue. Many people are against the continued use of fossil fuels and are wary of oil spills that can be catastrophic to the environment. But what about the risks to the marine life that live in those waters even before the drilling begins? There are serious consequences to marine life before any drilling even takes place.
What Are The Blasts?
Before oil and gas companies begin drilling, they emit blasts of compressed air underwater. These blasts go deep into the seabed on the ocean floor and deliver information on any oil deposits buried there. Unfortunately, these blasts are deafening to many underwater animals. Some of these animals rely on echolocation for communication and hunting their prey, meaning that a deafening noise could seriously ruin their lives and ability to survive.
Who Do The Blasts Affect?
While many underwater animals are affected by the offshore drilling blasts, some are harmed more than others. One of the life-forms most seriously affected, and most critical to ocean health, is zooplankton. Zooplankton include smaller series of jellyfish, crustaceans and some larval stages of fish. These plankton drift through the ocean and graze on food they find along the way.
Robert D McCauley from the University of Tasmania explains the importance of zooplankton. He said, “Zooplankton underpin the health and productivity of global marine ecosystems, and what research has shown is that commercial seismic surveys could cause significant disruption to their population levels... Healthy populations of fish, top predators, and marine mammals are not possible without viable planktonic productivity.”
Scientists at the University of Tasmania’s Center for Marine Science and Technology created a project to study the effects of drilling blasts on zooplankton. To do this, the scientists used an air gun underwater in southern Tasmania. They collected zooplankton samples both before and after the blasts.
Jayson Semmens, the co-author of the study, explained in more detail, “We counted the number of live and dead zooplankton collected in nets using a special staining technique and found that two to three times as many zooplankton were dead following the airgun operations than those collected before.” They also used sonar techniques to measure the amount of zooplankton in an area after an airgun blast.
From their study, the scientists discovered that zooplankton in areas that had been exposed to the airgun decreased by 64%. These impacts were felt as far away as 4000 feet from the blast. Previous to this study, oil and gas companies estimated that the airgun blasts only affected marine life within 32 feet of the blast.
The Future of Offshore Blasting
Despite these results, the Trump Administration seems to be promoting an increase in offshore oil drilling activities. In early June, Trump worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to allow five oil and gas companies to use airguns off the Atlantic coast. With this proposal, over 90,000 miles of ocean floor would be susceptible to blasting and over 135,000 square miles of the ocean could be affected.
The proposal admits that these airguns would cause damage to marine mammals and other ocean life. The NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources vowed to take steps to minimize this damage by monitoring marine mammals below the surface to know when they are in range of the blast. However, these monitoring devices would not apply to smaller life forms, such as ocean zooplankton.