Health of our Fisheries Demands Thorough Vetting of Proposed Seismic Testing

The following opinion piece was submitted to Saving Seafood :

by Captain Kirk Larson, Mayor of Barnegat Light, NJ;
Captain Eddie Yates; and Captain Kevin Wark
BARNEGAT LIGHT, N.J. (Saving Seafood) August 27, 2014 -- Seismic ocean blasting off New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic Coast is of tremendous concern to those of us who make our living on the ocean. Seismic blasts are known to interfere with marine animal communication and movement and can cause fish and squid to scatter, negatively impacting catch rates.

This summer, commercial and recreational fishing organizations and leaders joined with ocean advocacy organizations like Clean Ocean Action, divers, marine mammal experts, coastal businesses and concerned citizens to stop a seismic study led by Rutgers University. Rutgers and its collaborators - Columbia University, the University of Texas and the National Science Foundation - have postponed a seismic study originally scheduled to begin this summer until next year. The aim of the study is to generate 3-D images of 30-60 million year old sea floor sediments to gauge historical changes in sea level. To do this, the research vessel Marcus G. Langseth would use airguns that blast 250 decibels into the water every 5 seconds, 24 hours a day for 30 days.

Since core samples have already been taken in the same area, the value of the study is questionable, particularly when balanced against the threat to fisheries, marine mammals and our coastal economy.

Now we have another seismic study to worry about. The US Geological Survey (USGS) just received federal approval to begin a two-year survey to research tsunami threats in the mid-Atlantic using an array of 36 airguns that will blast the ocean at 236-265 decibels every 20 to 24 seconds, 24 hours a day for at least 17 days each year of the survey. The survey has begun, and blasting will continue next spring.

New Jersey's offshore waters are host to numerous marine mammals and five threatened or endangered sea turtle species. What's confounding about the Rutgers University ocean blasting and the proposed USGS testing is the damage that could be done to our fragile fisheries, and the sheer volume of marine mammal "takes" that have been granted to Rutgers (over 600) and requested by the USGS (over 19,000).

If the "takes" are authorized or "allowable," what other harm to marine life is expected.
Federal requirements under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act have required a host of changes in the way we fish. Implementing these changes is time consuming, expensive and reduces our harvest. Why aren't these seismic blasting studies subjected to comparable scrutiny? The proposed and allowable "takes" are a smack in the face to fishermen who've participated in "take reduction meetings" with NOAA and environmentalists.

When it comes to endangered species and marine mammals all of our fisheries have been examined microscopically and we have spent so much time dealing with NOAA on these issues that we've become part of the process. We feel totally within our rights to demand that these surveys be examined with an equivalent level of scrutiny.

We will also point out that nobody has approached us to discuss what we can expect in the way of fallout from seismic testing. We have many unanswered questions. For example, will commercial fishing and charter/party boats that have limited days to fish for fluke and other fish be granted more days by the National Marine Fisheries Service if time is lost due to seismic testing? And what is seismic testing going to do to the scallop fishery that is a huge part of our economy (Philadelphia Inquirer 8/2/14)?

Seismic testing is used for oil and gas exploration, and it's clear that oil and gas interests will have access to and will be perusing the data collected by Rutgers and the USGS. In fact, that's what the National Science Foundation, the funder of Rutgers' study, said in its summary of the Rutgers-led blasting experiment.

Add to the mix the Obama Administration's recent opening of the Mid-Atlantic coast to seismic testing - overtly for oil and gas exploration - and we're looking at the inevitable. What comes after seismic testing is oil and gas drilling. This is particularly troubling considering recent reports that oil spill damage to the Gulf of Mexico after the BP disaster was far greater than we had all been led to believe initially.

Fishing is a significant part of the US coastal economy according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). In 2012, US commercial and recreational saltwater fishing generated more than $199 billion in economic activity. In New Jersey alone, the state Department of Agriculture estimates that in 2012, New Jersey landed 108.5 million pounds of fin and shellfish, valued at $187.7 million (Newark Star Ledger 7/29/14).

Many factors are at play for a successful fishing operation and ultimately a vibrant coastal economy that thrives on fishing: good fisheries management, timing, good crews, good boats, regulations, and a clean and safe ocean for marine life.

What we need is time for robust public input and congressional oversight. It is our hope that our colleagues in the commercial and recreational fishing industries up and down the mid-Atlantic coast join us and demand that we have rigorous congressional oversight with regard to seismic blasting and the prospect of oil and gas drilling off our coast.

The same level of scrutiny that is directed towards fishing must be directed at seismic testing - or any other activity that has the potential to impact negatively on our coastal waters. There's too much at stake otherwise.

About the Authors:
Captain Kirk Larson is the Mayor of Barnegat Light, NJ; Mayor Larson owns several scallop fishing boats and is on the board of Viking Village on Barnegat Light. Captain Eddie Yates runs the charter fishing boat "Hunter" out of Barnegat light. Captain Kevin Wark operates the commercial fishing vessel "Dana Christine" out of Barnegat Light and is on the board of the Garden State Seafood Association.