On May 12 and 13, I was invited to be part of a Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat workshop that was called by the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian sister agency to NOAA) to assess the Canadian government’s mitigation measures to protect marine mammals from noise impacts of seismic surveys used to explore for offshore oil and gas. Thanks to my previous involvement in the Ocean Noise Coalition, a Canadian ONC member recommended that I be invited—thanks, Kathy! Longtime ONC colleague Michael Stocker of Ocean Conservation Research was also there, and we shared some nice rambles around the city. The two-day workshop included a day of “working papers” in which various participants shared research and information meant to inform our assessment of how well marine mammal observers, safety zones, and passive acoustic monitoring perform in their goals of protecting marine mammals from the effects of seismic survey noise. Most of the 40+ participants work for agencies, oil and gas companies or trade groups, or for environmental consultants who write EISs or manage marine mammal observing operations for seismic survey companies. Four of us were from the “environmental community,” and of those, I was the only one to present a working paper.
My paper was the sole piece of the workshop that addressed impacts beyond the 500m exclusion (or safety) zone, meant to protect animals from injury; the paper and Powerpoint addressed what is likely to be the most biologically important of the behavioral effects of human noise in the sea, the disruption of foraging and feeding activity. You can see my Powerpoint presentation (very simple summary of my paper) at
The draft of my paper (to be somewhat honed for final inclusion in the Technical Report, based on the comments/discussion that took place at the workshop) is at:
Other papers of particular note included several that spelled out the many weather-related conditions that severely limit the ability of on-board Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) to actually see whales; even slight choppiness reduces effective sighting rates from close to 100% down to below 50%, not to mention fog. Also striking, though less surprising, was that experienced observers generally see twice as many whales as new observers; this is an issue, as many survey vessels use relatively inexperienced observers. The need for a more substantial and certified training program was also stressed. Finally, a fair amount of discussion revolved around the fact that sound propagation is far less consistent than has been assumed, with most survey operators and regulators now aware that seafloor depth and sound bouncing from several directions can create high sound levels at many kilometers from active survey vessels, which complicates efforts to protect whales from harm. New initiatives from the Joint Industry Partnership (JIP), funded by a consortium of oil companies, include detailed studies of sound propagation as well as more rigorous observer training and standardized observer reporting forms. In addition, the trade organization for the contractors who do the actual seismic surveys, the IAGC, has an increasingly diverse environmental assessment and compliance program.
On the second day of the workshop, the group honed the basic outline of a Technical Report that will inform the DFO’s continuing efforts to improve mitigation measures over time. The sessions were ably piloted by the DFO’s Jake Rice, who insured that each comment made around the table was heard and acknowledged as the drafting of the Technical Report proceeded. Rapport and respect between the diverse stakeholders present was, by all accounts, much more positive than what has often occurred in the past; it feels as if all the players are coming to understand that their own perspective is not absolutely “right” (or does not need to be vehemently defended) and that the best path forward is to acknowledge the priorities of all parties. It was my first experience as a participant in a major agency workshop such as this, and I came away feeling honored to have been asked to participate, and aware that I had contributed key pieces to the discussion and to the final report.