Marine Vibroseis: A Safer Alternative to Seismic Airguns for the North Atlantic Right Whale

Kayla Bastolla, Pre-Veterinary Medicine

Jared Carson, Horticulture

Stacey Vogel, Natural Resource Conservation

The North Atlantic Right whale was almost hunted to extinction throughout the 17th to early 20th century. Biologist estimated that whalers hunted and removed 5,500 North Atlantic Right whales from the ocean due to high need for oil and baleen (Szabo, 2018). A single right whale yields 1,386 gallons of oil plus 647 pounds of baleen which was used for women’s corsets, buggy whips, and umbrella ribs (Ocean Portal Team, 2018;National Marine Mammal Laboratory, n.d.). In 1946, the International Whaling Convention (IWC) saw it fit to establish management to oversee the whaling industry globally. Even with regulations in place, this species was declining at a rapid speed.  Due to that immense decline, in 1986 the IWC banned whaling indefinitely which remains in effect today except for Japan and Norway who have never recognized the ban (Fitzmaurice, M., 1946). The United States enacted their own laws for the protection of marine mammals by passing a law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), in 1972 forbidding the killing, hunting, injuring or harassing of any species of marine mammals. In the following year Congress then passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a law protecting endangered species, both threatened or in danger of extinction as well as those that are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future, using the same parameters as the MMPA, for any species listed on the endangered species list (The Marine Mammal Center, 2019;Lang, 2002;The Marine Mammal Center, 2019). The North Atlantic Right whale is also protected in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) appendix I which is enforced by the United Nations (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], n.d.). CITES, protects the North Atlantic Right whale from international trade between countries involved in the United Nations as an endangered species (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES], n.d.). Thankfully due to this legislation we saved the North Atlantic Right whale from extinction, but their population is estimated at only 300-350 individuals which still categorizes them as an endangered species because there is less than 2,500 mature adults (World Wildlife Federation [WWF], 2019;Endangered Species Categories and Criteria, 2012). We now have to protect this species from a new threat, seismic airgun arrays.

New England is well known for whale watching in large parts due to the Stellwagen Bank National Sanctuary which is an 842 square mile federally protected area in Massachusetts’ Bay (O’Connor et al., 2009). What makes this area so diverse in marine organisms is the geomorphology on the bottom of the ocean. The ocean currents hit this bank and stirs up nutrients which surface and bring about a good food source for photosynthetic organisms catalyzing a large food web ranging from small organisms, such as zooplankton, all the way to marine mammals, such as whales. Whales that are well known to the area are the Minke, Humpback, Blue, Fin and most importantly the North Atlantic Right whale. The North Atlantic Right whale is an incredibly majestic animal, third largest of all whales. They are on average 50 feet long and weigh 70 tons which is heavier than a space shuttle (Ocean Portal Team, 2018). Every year people take their families out to Cape Cod to watch this magnificent species surface. They are easily distinguishable by their V shaped blow (their visible exhalation), the lack of a back fin and the lift of their large black tail as they dive under the water. They also have callosities or large roughened patches of skin on them where thousands of crustaceans live (Photo Identification, n.d.). The average pregnancy is between 12-13 months, with only one calf per pregnancy. The mother then nurses her calf for up to 2 years, but it will take a total of 8 to 11 years before that calf reaches sexually maturity and can reproduce its own offspring. After reaching sexual maturity, adult females will reproduce every four years making it a slower recovery species (North Atlantic Right Whales, 2015). These whales use unique calls for various daily activities from foraging (locating food) to mother/calf proximity calls and finding mates, which are all imperative to the fitness, the ability of an animal to survive and reproduce successfully, of this species (North Atlantic Right Whale, 2019;Rosenbaum, 2018) Therefore, the North Atlantic Right whales are very much dependent on these calls.

Whales are an integral part of our marine ecosystem because they provide balance and stability to their habitat which is critical between predator and prey species in order to keep the system well lubricated and fully functioning (Nag, 2017).  A North Atlantic Right whale consumes 2,600 pounds of food, krill and zooplankton, daily which is as much as a male giraffe weighs (Basic Facts About Right Whales, n.d.). Krill is one of the most abundant species in the world and their combined biomass is estimated to exceed more than that of people (Grossman, 2015). The North Atlantic Right whale is a keystone species which ensures that no one species dominates an ecosystem (Why are Whales Important, n.d.). When one species of an animal is important to the food chain dies, it allows other species to thrive, which in this case is krill.  At first it will appear the krill benefit from not having the predators, but in time, this animal will overpopulate and disrupt the natural flow of the ecosystem. It may then deplete other species that it feeds on. Additionally, the greater the populations of krill, the less oxygen and space there is available for other marine mammals and fish to live. This leads to a domino effect. Decreases in livable space for fish would create a deficit in our seafood industry (Kershaw, 2017;Lake, 2019;Rich, 2017).

Food consumption is only one of many reasons why whale populations should raise concern. Other than balance in an ecosystem, North Atlantic Right whales provide economic benefits in relation to tourism. In the United States in 2008 there was  6,256,277 whale watchers which generated over one billion dollars in expenditures (O’Connor et al., 2019). In almost all accessible harbors whale watches are a huge attraction and it affects more than just the people who partake in the activity. Whale watches draw people in and create desirable areas to visit. This brings business to local vendors, hotels and restaurants in the surrounding area which affects all people who are employed by those businesses. If those whale watches weren’t offered as an attraction because whales like the North Atlantic Right whale were eliminated for instance, than that town or city and its people would suffer economically. Whale watching as an industry creates on average 5,700 jobs each year to the global economy. North Atlantic Right whales are worth more alive than dead because they provide a sustainable future to local communities (DNEWS, 2013). The removal of whales may cause a powerful butterfly effect throughout the entire areas it surrounds (Kershaw, 2017). The livelihood of North Atlantic Right whales affects humans both directly and indirectly which causes alarm when their fitness is threatened.

Seismic Surveying directly interferes with marine mammal communication calls (Blackwell et al., 2013; Kyhn et al., 2019). In a recent study it was shown that the closer whales are to airgun sound arrays, the more drastic reduction in call localization rates (CLR; the number of localized calls per hour within a 4 km racetrack determine). Whales close to seismic activity (within 41-45 km), received median levels of airgun pulses of at least 116 decibels which is similar to being up close to a chainsaw or the sound of a thunderclap but at a constant rate (Virostek, 2017). This results in dropped call rates from an average of 10.2 calls per hour before the commencement of seismic activity to 1.5 calls per hour during and after airgun use (Blackwell et al., 2013). This reduction in call rates is critical because it hinders or stops normal daily activities altogether.

North Atlantic Right whales miss out on foraging opportunities or cease to forage altogether when Seismic noise interrupts or masks communication (Farmer et al., 2018). They then have to mobilize body fat in order to have enough energy for basic metabolic functions, therefore lowering their body condition (the overall distribution of fat over the body) (Farmer et al., 2018). An animal that comes in contact with these airgun array waves for a prolonged period of time may be unable to find food and will end up starving. The population of North Atlantic Right whales is already negatively impacted by climate change in that their prey species are leaving their natural habitat which lowers their overall food supply, making the ability to reproduce successfully difficult (WWF, 2019). Additionally, there is a reduction in mother-calf proximity calls.Calves separated from their mothers due to the inability to hear mother-calf proximity calls end up starving to death without the mother there to feed them (Rossi-Santos, 2015).  The interference of foraging and mother/calf calls can ultimately result in decreased fitness for the North Atlantic Right whale.

Mating calls are also disturbed by seismic activity, leading to loss of breeding opportunities for males, which doesn’t help the endangered status of the North Atlantic Right whale. The disturbance results in decreased singing activity which these whales use as a mating call to attract mates, therefore there is a reduction in breeding opportunities (Castellote, Clark, & Lammers, 2012; Rossi-Santos, 2015). Overall, the negative impacts of seismic surveying on North Atlantic Right whales is leading to their demise and changes are required for their survival.

 

The primary drive for corporations to use seismic surveying is the economic return gained for providing fossil fuels. There is a social and cultural aspect to this because so many people in countries like the United States(U.S.), use vehicles to commute and these vehicles need a constant supply of gasoline and oil to keep running. In addition to transportation the world’s economy is still very dependent on fossil fuels for a variety of sectors, including the production of goods and heating/cooling of living spaces. The U.S. receives 85% of their energy requirements from fossil fuels (EconomyWatch, 2010).  For these reasons, we continue to use seismic surveys to find and retrieve fossils fuels. Ideally we would move away from fossil fuels altogether, but right now it is unreasonable to expect people to stop using them and get rid of commodities such as vehicles. It is also illogical to expect that industries such as motor companies and gas/oil companies as well as individuals that make their living off gas and oil give up fossil fuels and switch over to something else completely. Oil and natural gas industries supplied 8.1 million full-time and part-time jobs in the U.S. national economy in 2015 (Economic Impacts of the Natural Gas and Oil Industry, 2017, p. 6).  he earnings of these companies are too high to expect that they stop searching for oil. For example, ExxonMobil’s corporate total earnings for the 2018 year was $20.840 billion of which $2.238 billion was spent on exploration (ExxonMobil, 2018, p. 113). Until a more profitable fuel source arises, we exhaust the Earth’s supply of fossil fuels or until technology advances producing more efficient cleaner energy that can be sustained and produced for the mass market, than we cannot expect that a company like ExxonMobil will stop collecting and exploring for oil when they are earning so much on this product and investing quite a bit to find it as well.  

Thankfully, there is a recent study of an alternative method to seismic surveying, known as marine vibroseis, that has shown less of an impact on whales while still being able to locate fossil fuels (Duncan, Weilgart, Leaper, Jasny, & Livermore, 2017; Dolman and Jasny, 2015). Marine vibroseis is designed to release the same amount of energy as airgun surveys does, but rather than blasting all the energy at once, it is released continuously or intermittently for a longer period of time. If oil companies utilized this new technology, the world economy would remain as it is while causing less harm to whales in the ocean. Geokinetics, founded in 1997, developed AquaVib, a marine vibrator, to provide an alternative to the high decibel sound traditionally created by seismic activity. Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) also carries a similar product for marine vibroseis with very low frequency sound level (Petroleum Geo-Services [PGS], 2017). Their plan was not to address the environmental concerns from seismic activity but instead to help mitigate the harm that marine mammals suffer due to this process. It is the high noise decibel of seismic airguns that disrupts the communication; with marine vibroseis the sound now resembles background noise instead of high energy blasts, therefore marine mammal communication would not be disrupted. They relate this sound to more of a hum instead of bang (Offshore Technology, 2017).

The current issue with products like AquaVib is funding for final testing of the product (Offshore Technology, 2017). Since the oil industry has already put so much money and time behind seismic airgun surveying, they are reluctant to provide support for this new product. It is not economical for them to fund the research for the final testing of AquaVib when they already have one that works for them (Ogden, 2014). These companies that are unwilling to switch over to marine vibroseis may not realize the full benefit of having marine vibroseis over seismic airguns. Not only does marine vibroseis produce significantly less noise pollution, it also is much smaller and more customizable than seismic airguns. Seismic airguns do not have a lot of variation between product size and they are generally much larger than marine vibroseis products. This means that they cannot survey shallow waters as the actual airgun is too large to navigate without wrecking the seafloor in its wake. Alternatively, marine vibroseis can be used in more shallow waters between 8-30 meters deep much more easily (Weilgart, 2016;PGS, 2017). If oil companies are able to survey more area with marine vibroseis, they can potentially find more oil reserves.

Another argument that could be brought up against the implementation of marine vibroseis over airgun surveying is the possibility that marine vibroseis is harmful as well to whales. However, the current research on the technology shows that the decreased amount of decibels used for the process of marine vibroseis does not interfere with the communication or physical fitness of whales in the vicinity (Duncan, Weilgart, Leaper, Jasny, & Livermore, 2017; Dolman and Jasny, 2015). When surveying water 1,000 meters deep seismic airgun arrays use 116 decibels, whereas marine vibrators only use 34 decibels which is a drastic decrease (Petroleum Geo-Services [PGS], 2017). This is still relatively new ground for seismic surveying, so increased research on the technology as well as increased publicity of its effects may help to sway oil and gas companies towards switching to marine vibroseis.

Acknowledging the fact that a large oil company most likely isn’t going to invest money on safer technology unless they are required to, it is necessary to bring in legislative powers in the process of moving away from harmful airgun seismic surveying. Oil companies indirectly harm and kill whales by using airgun seismic surveying which is an immediate violation of the MMPA and ESA (Lang, 2002;The Marine Mammal Center, 2019). Currently, many oil companies such as Exxon Mobil claim that there is insufficient scientific evidence of the harm that seismic airguns inflict on marine species (Exxon Mobil, 2018). Proving that there is harm to marine mammals, especially to endangered species such as the North Atlantic Right whale, to an international power, such as the United Nations, while also proving that a safer technology exists would allow for law enactment that would require oil companies to cease traditional airgun surveys and force them to make the switch to marine vibroseis. The involvement of an international power is necessary due to the overlap of the span of the natural habitat of the North Atlantic Right whale (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], n.d.) and coastal oil exploration involving several countries including the U.S., Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom and other countries along the western and northern coast of Europe where seismic exploration occurs (Map of Oil & Gas Drilling Rigs in the North Sea, 2019). The United Nations already protects North Atlantic Right whales internationally through CITES appendix I as an endangered species as mentioned before (CITES, n.d.). We need to enforce the laws that are currently in place to protect the mammals before their populations cannot recover. We were able to move on from whaling when we thought were unable to and ideally we need to make the same stride towards cleaner energy and away from oil. Unfortunately, we know those strides will take too long for this species and they need to be saved now until the technology reaches us and we can move away from oil use altogether.

Oil companies such as ExxonMobil already spend quite a bit in research and development. In 2018, ExxonMobil spent $14.421 billion on development (ExxonMobil, 2018). Part of these funds from ExxonMobil have already been used towards developing a marine vibrator product. Since 2011, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total (all gas and oil companies) have sponsored the research for development of marine vibroseis technology, a project referred to as Marine Vibrator Joint Industry Project (Jenkerson et al, 2018). These companies found that they needed a safer way to explore more environmentally sensitive portions of the ocean. The research being done for marine vibroseis is allowing them to find a more appropriate product to use in these areas which will not disturb the ecosystem as seismic surveying has in the past (Schostak, Jenkerson, & Mougenot, 2015; Lake, 2019).With such a disturbance in the ecosystem of the ocean, oil companies decided that their best method of approach was to research marine vibroseis as a potential alternative (Schostak, Jenkerson, & Mougenot, 2015).

Overall, marine vibroseis is the best solution to the negative impacts of seismic surveying on North Atlantic Right whale fitness without completely getting rid of ocean surveying for oil deposits  (Duncan, Weilgart, Leaper, Jasny, & Livermore, 2017; Dolman and Jasny, 2015). With seismic airgun surveying being so loud, it interferes with North Atlantic Right whale communication calls and prevents them from finding each other as well as to find food sources (Farmer et al, 2018). Since the North Atlantic Right whale population is so small (only about 350 individuals), it really cannot take any individual losses.  Marine vibroseis is a safer alternative and therefore can prevent any more harm being done to the endangered North Atlantic Right whale via its softer approach to sound surveying. Legislation needs to be enacted on this new technology of marine vibroseis to force oil companies to fund the final testing and then adopt the new technology. Current laws also need to be enforced so we can conserve the remaining individuals of this endangered species in the meantime.

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