You can weigh in on plans for ‘seismic blasting’ using air guns off NC coast

In this Feb. 2009 photo provided by the New England Aquarium, a North Atlantic right whale swims with her calf in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the United States near the border between Florida and Georgia.
In this Feb. 2009 photo provided by the New England Aquarium, a North Atlantic right whale swims with her calf in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the United States near the border between Florida and Georgia. AP

Shooting air guns into the ocean could soon be fair game in the search for oil and gas along the North Carolina coast, even if the seismic blasts “harass marine mammals” such as whales.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering allowing the practice by energy companies and wants the public to weigh in.

“Seismic blasting” is a controversial technique using air guns to explore and map offshore oil and gas reserves deep beneath the ocean floor. They are towed behind ships, shooting loud blasts of compressed air deep into the seabed. These blasts can be repeated every 10 seconds for days to weeks at a time.

Coastal communities and environmental activists say the blasts could harm marine life – including whales – and disturb fishing and tourism.

It’s not just North Carolina. Communities and activists in South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia galvanized by opposition to offshore drilling also are opposed to air-gun blasting off their coast.

The fisheries service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and also known as NOAA Fisheries, is accepting public comments through July 21 on proposals to allow companies “to incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals,” according to a news release from the fisheries service. The deadline was originally July 6, but was extended.

In January, the Obama administration denied applications for seismic blasting along the East Coast, but President Donald Trump’s administration reversed that decision through an executive order a few months later.

Under the Trump administration, the fisheries service could issue as many as five permits to oil and gas companies to allow them to use the air guns to search for potential drilling sites.

“Many ocean animals, particularly marine mammals such as whales, rely for their very existence on their ability to use sound,” said Douglas Nowacek, a Duke University scientist and professor, in testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee. “For these animals, sound is central to their ability to find food, to locate other animals, to avoid predators, to reproduce, and thus to survive.”

The fisheries service said at a news conference in June that air-gun operations would include measures to monitor and mitigate any harm to marine mammals, including a requirement that observers board all vessels to alert operators if a protected species comes within a certain distance; acoustic monitoring to detect marine mammals beneath the ocean surface; and required shutdowns when sensitive species or animal groups are observed.

Dozens of members of the U.S. House – including Republican Rep. Walter Jones, who represents much of Eastern North Carolina – sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in “strong opposition” to the use of air guns.

In the letter, the members of Congress cited a 2014 study conducted by researchers at UNC, Duke and the NOAA off the North Carolina coast that showed seismic blasting resulted a decline in reef fish and that the seismic air guns can be heard more than 2,500 miles from their source, about two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

“Opening the Atlantic to seismic testing and drilling jeopardizes our coastal businesses, fishing communities, tourism and our national security,” the letter reads. “It harms our coastal economies in the near term and opens the door to even greater risks from offshore oil and gas production down the road.

“Therefore, we implore you not to issue any permits for seismic airgun surveys for sub-sea oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Former Gov. Pat McCrory advocated for offshore energy surveying in 2014. Gov. Roy Cooper hasn’t taken a position on the practice; Cooper’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

To weigh in, submit comments at or email comments to Jolie Harrison, or mail comments to 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD, 20910.