The prospect of drilling off the Carolinas coast inched closer Tuesday with publication of a federal notice on high-volume sonic blasts that could affect thousands of dolphins and whales.
The notice seeks public comment on five requests from exploration companies for “incidental harassment” of whales and dolphins in an area from Delaware to Florida.
Exploration ships conducting seismic surveys trail arrays of airguns that shoot compressed air underwater, generating signals that reflect off the sea floor. Once begun, they normally go on around the clock.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April that could open the door to offshore exploration in the Atlantic. The order reversed a decision by the Obama administration to deny permits for seismic surveys.
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Offshore drilling, if it occurs, would be years in the future and face layers of studies, public scrutiny and likely legal challenges.
Environmental advocates and many scientists say seismic surveys can cause hearing loss, disrupt feeding and mating of marine mammals. The exploration industry maintains that no harm to ocean life has occurred in decades of use in the Gulf of Mexico.
A federal environmental study acknowledges that the Atlantic surveys could affect thousands of animals. Among the top five species likely to be affected, it said, the surveys could harm up to 32,000 dolphins and pilot whales a year and disturb up to 3.1 million more.
Jolie Harrison of the National Marine Fisheries Service told reporters Monday said that the agency has “no reason to anticipate certainly mortality from this,” National Public Radio reported. She added that “we do have concerns about how these activities may impact marine mammals, but we also believe that we’ve put measures in place that will allow us to offset them.”
Federal law allows small numbers of marine mammals to be harmed if it has a negligible impact on the overall species and procedures are followed.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management agreed in 2014 to accept applications for seismic surveys but set restrictions such as stopping work when sea turtles and marine mammals get too close.
More than 50 local governments on the Carolinas coast have gone on record opposing seismic surveys or offshore drilling, the advocacy group Oceana says. The group calls seismic surveys the first step toward drilling.
“This threat is real and it’s coming fast,” Oceana’s Nancy Pyne said in a statement.