NOAA issues final guidance for ocean noise impact on marine mammals

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Division issued final guidance to help federal agencies predict how manmade underwater sounds potentially affect marine mammals’ hearing. NOAA will use the guidance in its assessments and authorizations of offshore activities that produce underwater noise, it said on Aug. 3.

The matter is of particular interest to offshore oil and gas producers and geophysical contractors that use 3D seismic mapping to identify and delineate new resources. Groups that oppose offshore exploration and production have voiced alarm that this could disturb sea mammals.

The International Association of Geophysical Contractors expressed concern this spring over delays at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in receiving incidental take authorizations to shoot seismic on the Mid-Atlantic US Outer Continental Shelf (OGJ Online, Mar. 14, 2016). IAGC and other oil and gas associations are reviewing NOAA’s new guidance to determine its possible effects, several officials told OGJ on Aug. 4.

Sound is critical to marine mammals’ survival because it is a primary means of communication, orientation, and navigation for finding food, avoiding predators, and selecting mates, the US Department of Commerce agency said.

Its authorities to address ocean noise effects on marine resources fall primarily under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act. These allow NOAA to recommend or require mitigation to reduce or eliminate activities’ predicted noise impacts to species and the places they rely on, the agency said. NOAA shares this responsibility with several other federal agencies, it added.

NOAA said in addition to helping it reach decisions on proposed activities that generate underwater noise, the guidance will help other federal agencies, industries, and other applicants more accurately predict the projects’ effects and help inform decisions about appropriate mitigation and monitoring. The agency’s fisheries division also has created online tools to help applicants use the new guidance, it said.

Initial reactions are critical

Among trade associations studying the action’s possible consequences, a National Ocean Industries Association official issued an immediate response. “Regardless of NOAA’s recent guidance, generations of ocean science have failed to demonstrate any significant impact to marine life from noise associated with oil and gas activities,” NOIA Vice-Pres. for Government and Policy Affairs Jeff Vorberger said.

“In addition to this long-standing record of safe operations, our industry regularly implements mitigation measures according to best practices and strictly follows federal regulations with respect to marine sound,” Vorberger told OGJ on Aug. 4.

In a statement, IAGC said that while it is still reviewing NOAA’s final acoustic guidance, “it appears major revisions recommended by our industry and other reviewers were not made, in favor of unreviewed, unilateral, and rash decision-making instead of adherence to transparency and the best available science.”

It warned that NOAA’s final guidance is likely to produce an increase in numbers of estimated Level A takes and in the size of corresponding activity exclusion zones, at least for certain marine mammal species, when compared to the results from the three previous independent expert recommendations in 2007, 2012, and 2015.

“This will likely lead to excessive overestimates of ‘takes’ under the MMPA for geophysical survey sound sources, when there have been no proven incidents of harm to any marine mammal stocks anywhere in the world by geophysical activities in the first place,” IAGC said.

This was not the first time the administration of US President Barack Obama had developed guidance for federal agencies in environmental matters. A day earlier, the White House Council on Environmental Quality released final guidance to help federal agencies consider climate-change impacts of their decisions during National Environmental Policy Act reviews (OGJ Online, Aug. 3, 2016).

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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