The Christie Administration is taking legal action to halt a federally approved seismic ocean survey that is scheduled to start this month off the New Jersey coast, and which could adversely impact the state’s vital tourism and fishing industries, and marine life, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin announced today.
The state has filed legal papers to seek injunctive relief in federal court to prevent the vessel, R/V Marcus G. Langseth, from conducting seismic research off the coast of New Jersey at this time.
The DEP believes this research, which would use loud, powerful sound blasts to map the ocean floor over a 30-day period, will likely have a detrimental effect on New Jersey’s fisheries and marine mammals. The study is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and led by Rutgers University.
“We must carefully safeguard those resources, which play such a key role in our state’s $40 billion tourism industry, for the benefit of our residents, businesses and the environment,’’ Commissioner Martin said. “The Christie Administration continues to focus on clean ocean water quality, protecting our coastline and working to enhance our coastal recreation and fishing industries.”
“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 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration failed to act properly when NOAA 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 National Science Foundation to conduct seismic ocean blasting tests between 15 and 50 miles 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. These air-gun blasts can generate up to 250 decibels underwater.
The DEP’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries and Office of Environmental Review have both concluded 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 160 decibels, 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 percent 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.
Press Release, July 04, 2014; Image: NOAA