Scientists warn of dangers from seismic testing off Nova Scotia

Nov 13, 2003 01:00 AM

A team of scientists warned that powerful sound guns used to explore for oil and gas could scare off fish stocks, maim whales and cause long-term damage in sensitive marine environments off the Nova Scotia coast. The group of oceanographers and marine biologists stepped forward with their concerns over seismic testing just as an oil-and-gas company prepares to drag loud sound arrays through an area near Cape Breton. The scientists are worried that so little is known about how the potent blasts affect dolphins, fish species and crustaceans that more study should be done before the testing begins.
"There's a great deal of potential for harm and it's not just individual animals, it's the whole population," said Hal Whitehead, a marine mammal expert and professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "My message is that we know very little and the risks are very great. We should proceed very cautiously."

Corridor Resources, a junior oil-and-gas exploration company based in Halifax, has applied to conduct the controversial testing in a small area off the west coast of Cape Breton. It is awaiting approval from the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, which has to determine whether the procedure could cause undue stress to the lucrative snow crab and hake fisheries, and unique whale populations that inhabit the area.
Barbara Pike, spokeswoman with the board, would only say the application is still under review and that it could be finalized in a matter of weeks, putting the company up against a tight deadline to do the testing before the winter weather sets in.

But critics, including officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, claim the board has been lax on the environmental assessment process and could create a series of unforeseen ecological setbacks. Ron Loucks, an oceanographer, did a scientific review of the perceived impacts on various marine species and believes there's a good chance many could be threatened.
"The area is already under stress and we may be introducing an additional stress," he said.

Of particular concern is what the blasting might do to certain bottlenose and sperm whales that are sensitive to noise, which travels great distances through water. Whitehead said a recent study by Spanish and British scientists found several whales and dolphins died due to noise disruptions, such as military sonar tests, which caused gas-bubble lesions in the animals. Several whales also died off the British coast near areas where seismic work was done. Fishermen in Norway also reported a 50 % reduction in their catches after seismic testing occurred, arguing the noise makes the stocks move to other areas.
"We should have some areas that are off limits to human activity and some areas where we fish and don't drill for oil and gas," said Trevor Kenchington, an oceanographer who wants the lease dissolved, Corridor compensated, and another environmental assessment done.

Norman Miller, president of Corridor, argued the company is being careful not to cause environmental impacts and has adapted its proposals to ensure little harm is done.
"The conclusions coming out of the scientific review were that if certain mitigations were taken, the risks would be small," he said. "And all of those (mitigations) are integral parts of the requirements to the board and our application to the board."

Environmentalists in Montreal also condemned a Hydro-Quebec proposal that would see seismic testing done in a vast area in the lower Gulf of St Lawrence, near Anticosti Island and extending to Iles de la Madeleine. The coalition of groups called on federal Environment Minister David Anderson to place a moratorium on the project, which the public utility is hoping could lead to a find of 150 mm cm of natural gas in the gulf -- enough to meet Quebec's needs for 25 years.
"This is the first battle," said Robert Michaud, a scientist and spokesman for the coalition. "The real war is to try to have the Quebec government stop this program that they announced a year ago."

The former Parti Quebecois government announced last November that Hydro-Quebec would invest $ 300 mm to find commercially exploitable deposits of natural gas. The coalition urged Liberal Premier Jean Charest to abide by election promises to protect marine species.
"We demand that, like you promised last April, that the environmental and social acceptability of this project be evaluated in the framework of a scientific and independent assessment of Quebec's energy needs," reads a letter to Charest.

Facts and figures about a proposal to do seismic testing off the west coast of Cape Breton Island:
Who -- Corridor Resources, a junior oil and gas company based in Halifax.
Where -- A biologically diverse area about 16 km off the coast. The area is shallow, semi-enclosed and contains important spawning grounds and a nursery area that is a growth and feeding zone during the ice-free period.
When -- Corridor wants to conduct the testing between now and Feb. 28, 2004.
Concerns -- Environmentalists, natives and fishermen are worried that seismic testing could harm fish stocks in the area, as well as whales and other large marine mammals.
Safeguards -- Corridor would be required to take a number of safeguards, including a 30-minute incremental ramp-up to encourage marine animals to leave the area. A trained biological observer must also accompany the testing vessel to assist with marine mammal observations.

Source: Canadian Press
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