Noise pollution negatively affects at least 55 marine species, including both cetaceans and commercially valuable species of fish. Noise pollution occurs both during the exploration phase (particularly seismic surveying and support vehicles) and production phase (particularly drilling activities and support vehicles). The Australian Government recognises seismic surveys and industrial noise impacts as key threats to many Australian cetacean species, including the endangered southern right whale.
BP planned to use Vertical Seismic Profiling (VSP) for well evaluation and considered the potential impact on the marine environment to be of “minor significance.” However, this is inconsistent with research indicating VSP activities pose serious risks. Seismic airguns which are used during VSP activities are directed vertically, however they still significantly raise noise levels thousands of kilometres away, and “a considerable amount of energy is also radiated in all directions away from the vertical.” The director of Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program once described seismic airguns as possibly “the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment.” As International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) note in their submission into this Inquiry, this activity involves the firing of “intense blasts of air into the ocean, every 10 seconds, up to 24 hours a day over periods of weeks and months.”
Cetaceans use sound to communicate, navigate and feed. New oil facilities may cause habitat loss for cetaceans, disturb feeding or social behaviours and mask the sounds of predators. A single seismic survey can cause endangered fin and humpback whales (both species rely on habitat in the Great Australian Bight) to stop vocalising – a behavior essential to breeding and foraging – over an area at least 300,000 square nautical kilometres in size. Research from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Cornell has found that one of the species most vulnerable to these noise impacts is the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale whose calving grounds occur off Florida and Georgia in a disturbingly similar scenario to the critical southern right whale calving areas in the Great Australian Bight.
Noise pollution from oil exploration can also impact fish. Impacts include damage to hearing organs, stunning effect, severe tissue damage, increased levels of stress, altered swimming behavior, abandonment of breeding grounds during spawning season and death of fish larvae. Seismic surveys have been shown to dramatically depress catch rates of various commercial species (by 40-80%) over thousands of square kilometres around a single array.
New research has found that seismic surveys used to explore for off-shore oil devastate zooplankton in its path for kilometres. "Zooplankton underpin the health and productivity of global marine ecosystems, and what this research has shown is that commercial seismic surveys could cause significant disruption to their population levels," study co-author Robert D. McCauley said. (New Scientist Journal, 2017)