Environmental Groups Fight To Halt Seismic Airgun Testing In The Atlantic

By Allison Arteaga

There’s a reason why so many people describe surfing as a meditative experience.  Beneath the sea, all the noise of everyday life fades away. The ocean is a quiet, peaceful place. Or at least it used to be. About a month ago, the federal government announced its decision to open the Atlantic Ocean to seismic airgun testing, lifting a decades-long moratorium and putting environmental groups up in arms.

The controversial technology uses high-intensity sound waves from blasts of compressed air to map density changes in the ocean floor. But those air blasts and sound waves have the potential to disturb, injure, or even kill any sea life within the testing zone, including protected marine mammals and crucial fisaheries stock. Plus, the geological information provided by seismic mapping is the precursor to the sort of environmentally risky deep-sea oil drilling that almost issued the Gulf Coast surf community a death sentence back in 2010.

The recent federal approval has officially opened the floodgates for seismic testing projects, and the permit applications are expected to start pouring in over the coming months. But, luckily, coastal residents aren’t just standing by and watching it all happen. Within the surf community, environmental groups are fighting hard to hold the line against seismic testing in the Atlantic.

In particular, New Jersey-based non-profit Clean Ocean Action (COA) has made headlines organizing large-scale, statewide opposition to a seismic testing research study by Rutgers University and partners (on August 8th, it was announced that, due to equipment malfunctions on their research vessel, the survey was postponed from this summer to 2015). Though the project’s stated purpose is studying sea level rise, the information collected will also be of value to the hydrocarbon industry. And COA Staff Scientist Cassandra Ornell said the impacts of seismic testing studies on marine life are unacceptable, regardless of the purposes. That’s why COA has recently fought back against another proposed seismic testing project by the US Geological Survey that would affect the entire East Coast… (Read more below the slideshow)

(Continued from above) “The USGS is looking at using 36 airguns at once, whereas the Rutgers study was [using] between 4 and 8 at once, so it’s a much larger scale project, geographically as well as with the intensity of the sound,” Ornell explained. “We’ve submitted comments to the National Marine Fisheries service, which will have to issue the final authorization, we’ve been in communication with the state of New Jersey, and we’ve also been getting the word out to our coalition and working with other environmental groups. We’ve asked the NMFS to reconsider issuing authorization for the study, but at a minimum, we’re asking them to consider alternatives and stronger mitigation measures.”

Clean Ocean Action will continue to fight seismic testing projects on a case-by-case basis while also working to create a unified front against seismic testing at large, as well as the offshore oil drilling that is likely to result from it. Within the larger surf community, other highly influential groups are following a similar plan of attack.

“We will be opposing specific permits for seismic testing, and we’re also engaging in the development of the five-year offshore drilling plan,” said Surfrider Foundation Ocean Programs Manager Pete Stauffer. “Every five years, the federal government develops a new plan for where they’re actually going to allow oil and gas drilling to occur, and they are just beginning to develop that plan for 2017-2022, so we are already advocating that areas like the South Atlantic and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico be protected from oil drilling. Our local chapters are all advocating for protecting their individual coastlines.”

Moving forward, both Stauffer and Ornell agree that drumming up local, state, and federal political opposition will be essential to fighting seismic testing and future offshore drilling plans. “I think the best strategy for individual citizens is writing to your governor and your members of Congress to ask for their leadership in protecting your coastline,” Stauffer said. “This is a high-level political decision, and there’s a real division on the East Coast right now among politicians, with some supporting it and some opposing it. So that’s the most important factor that will determine if and where seismic testing and oil drilling might occur.”


  • Write to your elected federal officials in the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as your state and local government representatives, urging them to oppose seismic testing and offshore drilling.
  • Become a member of a coastal conservation environmental group like Clean Ocean Action, Surfrider Foundation, or Hands Across The Sand.
  • Sign the petition against seismic testing online now at www.Surfrider.org

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