New Jersey moves to block seismic blasting

By Michele S. Byers

Imagine someone blasting an air horn next to your ear. Now imagine that sound thousands of times louder. That’s how experts describe the sound of seismic testing to whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish and other marine life.

Seismic testing, or blasting compressed air through water using airguns, is done to find oil deposits under the ocean floor. These loud blasts can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss in nearby marine mammals, which rely on sound to find food, communicate and reproduce. The blasts also affect fish, shellfish and other sea creatures.

As New Jerseyans look forward to another summer at the Jersey shore, this state we’re in is battling the federal government to block seismic testing along the Atlantic coast.

Last November, the National Marine Fisheries Service approved “incidental harassment authorizations” for five companies. These permits allow the companies to go ahead with seismic blasting, in spite of the injuries it causes to marine mammals and fish.

In response, 10 leading conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit to block both seismic testing and oil exploration. New Jersey and eight other coastal states quickly joined the litigation.

On March 6, New Jersey and its fellow intervenor states – New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Virginia – filed with the conservation groups for an injunction to block all seismic tests until the lawsuit is resolved.

“We’ve taken the lead in pushing back on the Trump administration’s efforts to engage in seismic testing in the Atlantic and drilling along our shores,” said New Jersey First Lady Tammy Snyder Murphy in a keynote address at the New Jersey Land Conservation Rally on April 12.

The lawsuit claims seismic testing violates three federal laws: the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Airguns are so loud that they disturb, injure or kill marine life, harm commercial fisheries and disrupt coastal economies,” according to Oceana, one of the environmental groups filing the lawsuit. “These blasts are repeated every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for days and weeks at a time.”

Airgun blasts also kill fish eggs and larvae and scare away fish from important habitats.

“Following seismic surveys, catch rates of cod and haddock declined by 40 to 80 percent for thousands of miles,” said Oceana.

Protecting New Jersey’s 130-mile coastline and waters is critical to the state’s economy. In 2016, tourism brought in more than $44 billion in revenue, supporting more than 838,000 jobs and generating $5.6 billion in federal taxes.

It’s hard to imagine New Jersey without its thriving shore economy – dependent on a healthy ocean and a clean coastline stretching from Sandy Hook to Cape May. And New Jersey’s commercial fishing industry supplies fresh seafood to countless restaurants and markets.

The last few years have brought good news for wildlife watchers in New Jersey. After decades of absence, marine mammals like humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins and seals have become increasingly common. Things like cleaner water, more plentiful food sources and laws protecting marine mammals have all helped.

But seismic testing threatens the recovery of marine mammals and the health of fish and shellfish. And oil drilling, with the possibility of leaks and spills, brings additional threats.

“We’ve said from day one that offshore drilling is bad for New Jersey and we are going to fight it every step of the way,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said. “We will not sit idly by and allow our pristine coast – and the people who rely on it – to suffer the harms and risks associated with seismic testing and offshore drilling.”

Offshore drilling for fossil fuels runs contrary to New Jersey’s energy goals, which include a transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

Want to help? First, make sure to let your elected representatives – your state legislators and congressional representatives – know how important the ocean and its marine life is to you, and thank them for all they have done so far to fight seismic testing.

Second, please support the conservation groups that filed the initial lawsuit: Oceana, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, Southern Environmental Law Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Coastal Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife, North Carolina Coastal Federation, One Hundred Miles, Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation.

And thank Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration for fighting seismic testing and standing up for healthy, diverse marine life and clean oceans.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org