Buried in President Trump’s executive order opening new waters to offshore oil drilling is a strange paragraph, demanding the government “rescind or revise” a NOAA memo on the effect of manmade sound on marine mammals — a memo that has strong ties to Santa Cruz.
“It was very odd,” said Mark Delaplaine, energy, ocean resources and federal consistency division manager at the California Coastal Commission. “It doesn’t fit with the other kinds of things on the list.”
“If I had to guess — and I’m guessing, because it doesn’t make sense — it could possibly be related to seismic surveys,” said Delaplaine.
Performed by oil companies, seismic surveys use loud airgun blasts to prospect for oil under the ocean floor. The sound, which can travel more than 2,000 miles, is at a low frequency that humans can’t hear, but large whales, seals, sea lions and other marine life can.
The NOAA memo, issued in 2016, gives guidelines on the frequencies and levels of manmade sound that affect the hearing of marine mammals.
Any new rules that would loosen regulation, or ignore the best available science for the permitting of seismic surveys would raise red flags, said Delaplaine. His San Francisco office uses the memo’s guidelines to review other agencies’ permits for offshore activity.
Issued April 28, Trump’s executive order lists areas where the Department of Interior will target for possible expansion of offshore oil drilling, “including, but not limited to” — the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. It also targets certain national marine sanctuaries, to consider the “opportunity cost” of potential oil drilling.
A 45-day public comment period on the review of the NOAA memo begins Wednesday.
The review of the memo, ordered by President Trump, is conducted by the Secretary of Commerce, who oversees NOAA. To comment, the public can visit regulations.gov, then search for NOAA-NMFS-2013-0177, the code for the NOAA memo.
The Sentinel contacted several NOAA officials, but was directed to a Department of Commerce spokesperson, who could only offer a form email response:
“President Trump’s Executive Order puts the needs of American families and businesses first by implementing a plan which will ensure economic vitality and energy security for years to come. It has been the policy of past administrations to be overly restrictive of offshore energy exploration, and the actions they have taken removed hundreds of millions of offshore acres from any development. As a result, 94 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf (submerged federal land surrounding the U.S.) is off limits to responsible energy development. This order sets up a review of the regulations and restrictions which reduce exploration and development.”
Aptos resident Brandon Southall was the primary author of the first marine mammal noise exposure guidelines, which came out in 2007. He directed NOAA’s Ocean Acoustics program from 2003 to 2009.
The NOAA memo’s approach is particularly important, said Southall, because it accounts for different species hearing differently, and gives varying thresholds for each species, beyond which hearing loss could occur. For example, whales hear low frequency sounds, and porpoises hear high frequency sounds.
“Before 2007, nobody had ever put anything out there. It was just how loud a sound was, irrespective of low frequency, high frequency,” Southall said.
Southall, now president and senior scientist at the Aptos-based firm Southall Environmental Associates, said he’s concerned with the Trump administration’s “overt assault on science and science-based conservation.”
“These guidelines were developed from a lot of science over a decade with a lot of input and peer review, and they are now being called out to be reconsidered for purely economic and political reasons, to benefit some of those that would be regulated,” Southall said.
He added, “So for them to, with a paragraph in an executive order, to say we should reopen and reconsider this, is pretty arbitrary and capricious.”
Southall said most often, what’s harmful about manmade sound, is that it causes marine mammals to move away from a region they are familiar with, to a region with less food or more predators. Many times animals can be stranded.
Seismic airgun blasts, at 260 decibels, are some of the loudest sounds made in the ocean, said Southall. By comparison, a fireworks blast from 3 feet is 150 decibels.
But other kinds of mapping, such as higher frequency sonar used for underwater construction, can also be harmful to marine life, said Southall.
For example, in 2006, mapping sonar sounds caused 200 melon-headed whales to veer into a Madagascar mangrove swamp, and they couldn’t get out.
“They died of hypothermia. It was terrible,” Southall said.
BIG OIL’S WISH LIST
Colleen Reichmuth, a UC Santa Cruz associate research scientist at Long Marine Lab, contributed to the NOAA memo some of the hearing sensitivity data for local seals, sea lions and sea otters, as well as some Arctic marine mammal species.
Reichmuth said one area that’s likely to be impacted by the executive order is the East Coast, where the oil industry wants to survey in the habitat of the critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale.
She said since oil companies don’t share data, each company performs its own seismic surveys and areas can be inundated with sound for months. Manmade sounds may prevent animals’ detection of other important sounds, such as communicative calls, predators and prey.
Like Southall, she said the NOAA memo has already underwent “intense, iterative public and peer review.”
“The concern that most scientists have about (the memo) is that it’s not protective enough,” said Reichmuth. “So to see it called out in this way, which to me, to be honest, it looks like an oil and gas industry wish list.”
The executive order “can only be implemented at the expense of the environment and the animals that live there,” she said. “And those protections were not put in place lightly. There was a huge, slow, incremental, thoughtful, peer-revised, public review process along the whole way.”