Seismic acquisition and its impact on marine life: a review and ethical aspects



There is a growing interest in understanding the effect of human-caused sounds such as ships, sonars and seismic air guns on the marine life. Fish and marine mammals use sound to communicate, sense the environment and find food. Marine mammals sense the environment by listening to sounds from natural sources, for example, surf noise, which can indicate presence and direction of a shoreline, or noise from an ice edge. Toothed and sperm whales use echo sounds to sense presence and location of objects, such as prey. Therefore, if a human-caused sound is within the animals’ auditory range, it might affect marine life in a way that could potentially prevent the animals from hearing important sounds, or cause the animals to alter their behavior.

We have a responsibility to protect the marine species against our human-induced noise. Indeed, this perceived responsibility is reflected in current concerns expressed through major campaigns for environmental organizations such as Oceana and Greenpeace, as well as through the increased regulations and guidelines during the planning phase and eventual sonar and seismic activity. In Norway, this concern has turned into an important question related to the oil industry, since environmental organizations use seismic acquisition and its impact on sea life as one of the largest anchor points towards the industry. However, ambiguity in science together with different ethical values, interests, and engagements has led to a carousel of discussions among experts on the issue and where the boundary defining what is right and wrong should be set.

As a marine geophysicist studying climate change, I have a special moral responsibility and curiosity about the effects that geophysical methods (e.g. seismic) can have on marine life. Throughout studies and work, I have participated on ~10 seismic acquisition cruises in arctic waters, almost all of them among whales and large schools of fish, without knowing much about the impact the operations can cause and potential mitigation procedures we apply to mitigate interference. Here, I will discuss the ethical challenges arisen by seismic airgun shooting.


Figure: Illustrative animation picture from: 

This relatively long essay is written by me, Malin, as a part of the course “Philosophy of Science and Ethics” at UiT.  The public interest for the issue made me wanting to share it with you.  Please do not hesitate to let me know (in the comment field below) if there is any comments or concerns regarding the text. 

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