A marine biologist working with seismic blasting surveyors has turned whistleblower to highlight significant flaws in how the process is monitored and the risks it poses to marine life. By Elle Marsh.
A seismic blasting whistleblower speaks
Hayley had been working on seismic blasting vessels for almost three years when she realised just how destructive the practice was. Her final assessment was simple: “I can’t believe that this is legal.”
Hayley, who asked for her real name to not be used, was employed as a marine fauna observer. Her job was to look for marine mammals such as the southern right whale, which could be harmed by the blasts used to search the ocean floor for oil and gas. Blasting would be paused only when specific whales were sighted.
Very soon, she realised her task was impossible to do effectively. There was often nowhere on the ship from which she could monitor all sides. The blasting continued nonstop, every 10 seconds. It ran through the night without a marine fauna observer rostered on.
“It’s certainly designed in favour of continuous operation,” she says. “There’s no transparency. There is no sharing of information because there’s so much money involved in this … They will not give up a day.”
The negative impacts of the blasting are hard to see because they happen below the surface. Hayley would spot hammerheads, whale sharks, dolphins and turtles, but the ships would not be required to halt the blasting, except in some instances.
She once saw a fin whale within metres of the bow of the ship. Blasting stopped but she says the animal could already have lost its hearing. “Knowing the impacts, that’s a pretty worst-case scenario.”
The practice of seismic blasting is incredibly secretive. The crew will spend six weeks at a time at sea on a ship as big as a cruise liner. Most of that period will be beyond sight of land. Staff changeovers and supplies are ferried out via helicopters or on support vessels. “You get a brief before you fly out,” Hayley says. “It tells you: ‘Do not talk about what you’re about to do to anyone. You come here, it’s confidential work.’ ”
An array of air guns are towed behind the ship. They shoot compressed air that sends soundwaves to the ocean bed. Acoustic receivers attached to lines of streamers, sometimes up to 10 kilometres long, extend out from the back of the ship collecting data.
One day Hayley went on board one of the support vessels that follow on either side of the towlines much closer to the air guns. She couldn’t believe how loud it was from the smaller boat. “Being able to see it firsthand was the first time the penny dropped for me. I was like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t feel that right.’ ”
The industry claims seismic surveying is relatively harmless, but there is significant evidence to the contrary.
In late 2010, Victorian and Tasmanian fishers in Bass Strait found themselves scooping up masses of dead scallops from the ocean floor. The Scallop Fishermen’s Association of Tasmania estimated the losses amounted to 24,000 tonnes of scallops with a retail value of more than $70 million.
The fishers blamed the scallop deaths on a seismic survey conducted earlier that year. It prompted one of the first ocean-based studies into the impact of seismic surveying on marine invertebrates.
The study found rock lobsters and scallops were severely harmed by seismic blasting, leading to significantly increased mortality rates. Invertebrates exposed to the air guns displayed signs of severe stress and lost the ability to regulate their blood content.
Measuring up to 256 decibels, seismic blasts are one of the loudest man-made sounds, on par with rocket launches and bombs. This level of noise can have fatal consequences on marine life, from zooplankton to whales.
It’s difficult to comprehend the impact the air guns can have on marine life due to their different auditory systems and the way sound travels faster and farther through water than in air. It can stay very strong and intense for a long distance.
An independent study in 2017 found seismic blasting killed zooplankton more than one kilometre from the source vessel.
A senate inquiry was established to investigate the impact of seismic testing on commercial fishing and marine life. In its report released in 2021, the inquiry called for stronger regulations and more funding to research the impacts of seismic testing. Almost no significant changes have been made since the inquiry released its report.
In March this year the energy research and business intelligence company Rystad Energy declared “Offshore is back”. Rystad Energy forecasts the “offshore oil and gas sector is set for the highest growth in a decade in the next two years, with $US214 billion of new project investments lined up”.
In Australia seismic surveys are proposed off the coast of Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, including near the world heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef. “There’s a struggle at the moment to take every last opportunity while they can,” Hayley says. “They’re moving off the continental shelf now, because that’s been hammered, and they’re looking at new frontiers … It’s terrifying.”
Many of these multibillion-dollar companies operating offshore are relatively unknown to the Australian public. They remain “largely invisible and unaccountable”, says Markus Nolle, a rock lobster fisherman from Victoria. “This all tends to happen over the horizon. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”
As director of Apollo Bay Fishermen’s Co-op, Nolle has spent years trying to engage with the multiple exploration companies that have conducted surveys in the Otway Basin. “On reflection, possibly foolishly, we engaged in good faith with the system,” Nolle says. But over the years, “what we’ve realised is, there’s actually fundamental structural problems with the legislation and the way it’s been set up”.
Local communities, fisheries, First Nations groups and the Colac Otway Shire Council have all voiced opposition to seismic blasting in the area but, Nolle says, “no one is listening”.
“These are frontier exploration companies who don’t live here … They don’t give a shit about the environment and they don’t give a shit about the people here.”
Late last year, one of the largest offshore exploration companies in the industry, Schlumberger – recently rebranded SLB – along with partner company TGS, announced plans to undertake the biggest seismic survey conducted in Australian waters.
The proposed survey would take more than 200 days and seismic blast 5.5 million hectares of ocean, starting off the coast of South Australia, moving through the Otway Basin and stretching past King Island to Tasmania. Endangered pygmy blue whales and southern right whales are known to forage in this region.
The Gunditjmara-led Southern Ocean Protection Embassy Collective called on the public to oppose seismic testing in their traditional waters, saying “Koontapool and the Whale Songline Country must be protected at all costs”.
Then in February documents obtained under freedom of information requests revealed Schlumberger Australia Pty Ltd was under investigation by Australian authorities. The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) has since confirmed the investigation is in relation to a previous seismic survey conducted in the Otway Basin in 2020 and a suspected breach of the Offshore Petroleum Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006.
Quietly, Schlumberger’s logo and name disappeared from the information fact sheets about the new proposed Otway Basin 3D Multi-client Seismic Survey. The Saturday Paper has approached TGS and SLB for comment.
In 2015, Schlumberger received the largest corporate criminal fines in United States history for a sanctions breach. The company pleaded guilty to facilitating trade with Iran and Sudan, violating US trade sanctions, and was fined more than $US232 million.
That same year the Australian arm of the company agreed to pay the Australian Taxation Office $US38.3 million after an investigation into the company for transfer pricing. In 2020, a class action lawsuit was filed against SLB in the US alleging women who worked for the company faced “systemic discrimination and harassment”.
In addition to its involvement in the Otway Basin seismic survey proposal information, Schlumberger has another seismic survey application being assessed by NOPSEMA. The Bonaparte MC3D Marine Seismic Survey, if approved, would see the blasting of 12,000 square kilometres of the Timor Sea, near the Ashmore Reef Marine Park.
Tasmanian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who chaired the senate inquiry into seismic testing, says NOPSEMA is “basically a rubber stamp for new activity”. The inquiry heard that more than 80 per cent of all applications or survey proposals had been given the go-ahead by the regulator.
“I don’t believe they’re independent of the oil and gas industry because they are populated by oil and gas executives and workers,” Whish-Wilson says. “The oil and gas companies are bullies. They’re all multinationals and they usually get their own way. They’re looking for the next big kind of bonanza and that’s what worries me. We just don’t need this stuff anymore.”
Hayley says she will continue to speak out about the industry in which she once worked. “The more I’ve learnt, the more it’s reinforced that I’m doing the right thing.”
This piece was modified on June 14, 2023, to clarify a quote from Peter Whish-Wilson.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Louder than a bomb".
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