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Hearing loss is amongst the most extreme and immediate form of physiological harm to marine mammals from exposure to seismic blasting. (Photo: Wikimedia Common)

Seismic Blasting in Pursuit of Oil Puts Whales at Risk, Report Confirms

There are increasing indications that use of underwater airguns could cause 'serious injury' to various species of whale

Deirdre Fulton

A new report urges "extreme caution" in using seismic airguns to explore for fossil fuels underwater, saying it is "indisputable" that the practice has adverse impacts on Arctic marine life, especially whales.

Seismic testing involves a vessel towing an array of airguns that continuously blast loud, low frequency sound waves down through the water column and into the seabed with intervals as short as ten seconds. The operations can go on for weeks on end, depending on the size of area designated for the survey.

"This new study shows how destructive seismic blasting can be for whales yet they continue with their pursuit for oil with no regard for environmental impacts and Inuit rights."
—Jerry Natanine, Clyde River mayor

"It is clear that noise from seismic activity has an impact on whales as it can damage their hearing, ability to communicate and also displace animals, affecting diving behavior, feeding and migration patterns," said report author Oliver Boisseau, senior research scientist at Marine Conservation Research, which conducted the study (pdf) for Greenpeace Nordic.

"There are increasing indications that this could cause serious injury," he said, "and may also disrupt reproductive success and increase the risk of strandings and ice entrapments."

Narwhals in particular, the report states, have a tendency to "freeze and sink" in response to a threat such as noise, rather than fleeing the area. This means narwhals—an at-risk species shown to be one of the most vulnerable Arctic marine mammals to climate change—are more susceptible to damage from airgun blasts as they are not inclined to avoid regions impacted by noise. In turn, they experience increased stress hormones as well as entrapments as a result of disrupted migration patterns. 

The report acknowledges a "massive research gap in this field," yet as Ethan Cox writes for Ricochet, it is sure to have implications in Canada, where the Inuit community of Clyde River has gone to court to prevent seismic blasting up and down the length of Baffin Island in the Davis Strait.

Last week, Canada's Federal Court of Appeal denied the hamlet's request for a judicial review of a testing permit issued by the National Energy Board. Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine immediately vowed to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, and on Monday he told Ricochet that the Greenpeace study only backed up Clyde River's case.

"One would hope for a limit on the greed of oil companies," Natanine said. "This new study shows how destructive seismic blasting can be for whales yet they continue with their pursuit for oil with no regard for environmental impacts and Inuit rights."

Indeed, added Boisseau: "It is alarming to consider the vast amount of seismic activity being planned and conducted in the High Arctic, given the fragile nature of the ecosystem and the potential for disturbance and harm to whales. It seems justified to urge for extreme caution given both the lack of data and the limited understanding of the short and long term impact of seismic noise on sensitive Arctic species, especially the narwhal."

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