NJ in court to stop seismic surveys

July 9, 2014

R/V Marcus G. Langseth, image from Office of Marine Operations, LDEONew Jersey is moving to stop an ocean research project opposed by the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), fishing groups, and environmentalists.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a permit on 1 July and the seismic surveys began, prompting a last-minute effort by the Administration of NJ Governor Chris Christie to take legal action to try to stop the work.

The study is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and led by Rutgers University.

On 3 July, NJ DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said that the seismic work could adversely impact the state’s vital tourism and fishing industries and marine life.  The state filed legal papers to seek injunctive relief in federal court to prevent the 241ft-long vessel, R/V Marcus G. Langseth, from conducting seismic research off the coast. The vessel is operated by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory's (LDEO) Office of Marine Operations [photo at right from LDEO].

But on 8 July, US District Judge Peter G. Sheridan, presiding in Trenton, issued a ruling from the bench after a hearing, saying the seismic work could continue following a one-day stay to allow the state time to file an appeal.  

NJ's DEP responded that it would appeal to the 3rd Circuit US Court of Appeals.

The DEP says the research will use loud, powerful sound blasts to map the ocean floor over a 30-day period that will likely have a detrimental effect on New Jersey’s fisheries and marine mammals.

“We must carefully safeguard those resources, which play such a key role in our state’s US$40 billion tourism industry, for the benefit of our residents, businesses and the environment,’’ Commissioner Martin said.

“We have made our concerns clear to the NOAA and remain hopeful that, at the very least, this initiative will be rescheduled for a less impactful time of year," Commissioner Martin added. "The timing of this program will be detrimental to various marine species that migrate and breed off the New Jersey coast and will negatively impact the commercial and recreational fishing industries, and related tourism, that relies heavily on these resources."

DEP contends that NOAA failed to act properly when it denied the DEP’s request to study fisheries impacts. This request was made in addition to comments the DEP provided for a federal permit allowing for incidental harming or killing of marine mammals in the study area.

The NSF’s own environmental study concludes that because of limited knowledge of the effects of seismic surveys on marine fish, this “makes drawing conclusions about impacts to fish problematic.”

Part of the study area includes areas identified as essential fish habitat (EFH), which are important for fish spawning, breeding, and feeding. In approvals for this study, NOAA concedes that “it appears that some level of adverse effect to EFH may occur.”

Rutgers University received funding from the NSF to conduct seismic ocean blasting tests between 15mi and 50mi east of Barnegat Inlet as part of a climate change study. The process involves the repeated blasts of compressed air by underwater seismic air guns, designed to determine the scientific understanding of changes in sea level rise by examining deep sea sediments.

AP reports that since July 1, researchers have been using air guns that fire every 5.4sec and emit about 250db of sound. The plan is to operate the guns continuously for 30 days.

Marine mammals

The DEP’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries and Office of Environmental Review have both concluded that this seismic activity would likely negatively impact New Jersey’s fish and marine mammal populations, including several endangered species.

NOAA is in the process of updating its Marine Mammal Acoustic Guidance, which set standards on how man-made sounds like seismic testing, sonar tests and ship noise, can affect marine mammals. Currently, the threshold level where underwater noise is considered to pose dangers to marine wildlife is 160db, which is louder than a jet engine.

DEP contends that this proposed seismic research can either directly harm fish or disrupt migration patterns that will have a detrimental impact on our commercial and recreational fishing industry. The study’s one-month time window coincides with the height of fish migrations through the study area. This time window also accounts for nearly 20% of the annual catch for many species of fish. In addition to fisheries impacts, the DEP further contends that the study will have an impact on marine mammals that migrate through the area and into New Jersey’s coastal waters. This concern is further reinforced by NOAA’s permit authorizing some harm to marine mammals, including threatened and endangered species.

AP's Geoff Mulvihill noted the unusual legal alliances: "The federal government is speaking on behalf of the state's flagship public university. The state government is on the side of some environmental groups that are frequently deeply critical of it."

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