Spread the love

The Sound of Death?

Whaling was the oil business of its day..

Nathaniel Philbrick

The motive behind criticism often determines its validity. Those who care criticize where necessary. Those who envy criticize the moment they think that they have found a weak spot.

Criss Jami, Killosophy

The objective of marine seismic surveys is not to annoy, harm or kill cetaceans or other marine fauna.  I believe that this is an important consideration.  This was not always the relationship between human energy needs and cetaceans.  Cetaceans, or whales, are divided into two main groups: toothed whales and baleen whales.  From the 16th through the 19th century, whales were principally killed for a source of oil used as fuel in lamps.  Although the relative value of various whale products varied across time and place, whale oil was the principal economic driver of the commercial whaling industry.  The efficient killing and processing of whales was the business objective of the commercial whaling industry.  Technological developments in whaling, such as ship speed, determined which cetaceans could be hunted commercially.  There was a precipitous decline in the use of whale oils from its peak in the 19th century into the 20th century that coincides with the commercial development of the petroleum industry as a source of fuel oil and manufacturing products.  Perhaps the petroleum industry saved the lives of thousands of cetaceans and prevented the extinction of several species?  What is known is that as the source of the commodity of whale oil began to deplete, technologies to improve hunting success, as well as incentives to replace the fuel both grew. 

The objective of marine seismic surveys is to create maps of the geology to guide oil and gas drilling operations.  Seismic reflection data is used to produce these maps.  The seismic reflection method requires introducing a controlled seismic energy source into the Earth.  Each layer within the Earth reflects a portion of the wave’s energy back and allows the rest to refract through.  In the marine environment, the these reflected compressional energy waves, or sound waves, are recorded by receivers.  The points being mapped are the midpoints between the source and receiver sensor(s).  In the 1950s, marine seismic research crews would toss boxes of live dynamite off the stern of the vessel. The dynamite would explode about a hundred meters behind the ship.  This was the seismic source.  One of the crew, Stephen Chelminski, recognized how dangerous this practice was and so endeavored to find a better and safer marine seismic source.  Lives were being lost and property destroyed using the dynamite source tossed from the vessel stern.  Chelminski earned the coveted Kauffman Gold Medal Award in 1975 in recognition for his development of marine seismic airgun technology.  The most common energy source used for marine seismic surveys these days are arrays of specially placed and timed airguns.  However, in recent years, marine seismic airguns have become especially controversial due to their perceived impact on the health and well-being of cetaceans.

Technology and Methods Designed to Kill Cetaceans
Airgun Technology Designed to Aid in the Mapping of the Marine Subsurface

Whaling was banned in many countries in 1969 because some species of cetacean were near extinction.  Globally, the commercial whaling industry was essentially ended in the late 1980s.  In 1982 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a moratorium on commercial whaling.  The purpose of the IWC is the conservation and safeguarding of cetaceans and other marine mammals to allow the recovery of pre-industrial whaling levels.  However, countries such as Norway, Iceland, and Japan oppose the IWC moratorium and support commercial whaling.  Aboriginal whaling is allowed to continue on a subsistence basis but not as a commercial activity.  There has been a paradigm shift from whales being regarded as a commercial commodity to becoming a spectacle.  Over the past few decades, whale watching has become a significant industry in its own.  In some countries whale watching has replaced whaling, while in others the two industries coexist.  The marine seismic airgun opponents view cetaceans as spectacles that need to be protected and preserved.  Whalers see cetaceans as a commodity.  The cultural battle grounds are in place around the world, from the protesting of marine seismic surveys offshore the east coast of the United States to The Great Australian Bight in Australia.  Airguns are currently the best energy source to use to accomplish survey objectives.  At the same time, the marine seismic survey commercial industry is relatively new and much is still unknown about its long-term impact on cetaceans and other marine animals.  Marine seismic surveyors endeavor to take measures and develop technologies to minimize the impact of their methods and equipment, such as airguns, on cetaceans, and other marine animals to satisfy customer requirements, but whose principal objective concern is analyzing and processing seismic, and other geophysical data, to produce useful maps that will reduce drilling risks. 

The [oil and gas] industry is slow to change, But certainly, I’ll be happy when it happens.

Stephen Chelminski, Geophysicist who DEveloped AIRGUN TECHNOLOGY and is currently working on marine vibrator technology

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.

Margaret Heffernan

As a young man, I took a trip to Seattle, Washington, USA.  In some bookshop I saw a pin that read, “Save the whales, what did the cows do wrong?”  I have been on many whale watching trips and enjoyed rare occasions of seeing cetaceans from the seismic vessels that I worked on.  I was raised and lived my younger adult life in the western US.  From this vantage point, void of any tangible socio-economic or cultural ties to whaling, whales were simply magnificent marine life visible without having to dawn scuba gear.  Cattle, on the other hand, defines the American west.  Cinema and television have glorified the rancher cowboy and cattle driver.  Cattle may roam the land of the American west, but they do so as property with “brands.”  Cattle are bred for beef, and another bred for dairy.  Beef and Dairy are traded commodities, and their population controlled through market demand.  In the US west, much of the Federal government land is leased to ranchers to graze their cattle.  Ranching and dairy production are commercial industries.  Cattle were not native to North America.  Prior to the (predominantly) European colonial conquest and expansion into western North America, bison – or buffalo – grazed the plains and grasslands.  These nomadic Native North American peoples subsisted on bison.  However, the commercial hunting of bison took the 60 million precolonial bison population to under 1000 in the late 19th century.  Private reserves and US Federal intervention prevented the extinction of the bison.  Bison population is only a small percentage of precolonial numbers.  Domestic cattle have taken over the rangeland.

Parties to the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) disagree about the necessity for continuing the moratorium on the commercial hunting of whales.  In fact, some believe that commercial whaling can be good for managing cetacean populations.  Whalers recognized that over-whaling has a negative impact on profits.  So, economic self-interest ultimately led whalers to take action to conserve the resource upon which they depended.  However, the United States, Great Britain, Australia and other nations supported the moratorium on whaling, not because the need to allow for more time for cetacean population recovery and management, but because certain nations believe whales have a right to life.  And with any moratorium on seismic airgun testing, cetaceans have the right to a pleasant life.  This position is no longer a strictly environmental viewpoint, it is an ethical viewpoint.  The same young man who visited the bookshop in Seattle, also was an avid hiker and backpacker who lived in New Mexico and loved The Land of Enchantment.  In fact, I was a member of the environmental group, The Sierra Club.  The Sierra Club is known for encouraging an appreciation for nature and the environment through sponsoring and leading hikes through such areas.  In fact, I led some hikes as a member of the local chapter of the club.  Because cattle can be grazed on Federal government land, which is also land which could be used for hiking, hikers would often encounter cattle and or their excrement along the trails. 

As a hiker, I didn’t like to encounter domesticated excrement.  At the same time, I was not bothered at all to spot a deer or bighorn sheep or come across their scat.  At some point, I made a decision to become a vegetarian.  My reasoning was that if I did not want to encounter cattle poop, I could not support the industry that used the same land I enjoyed for hiking to make hamburgers an affordable food choice.  I want to add that I also ran into hunters on these trails during certain times of the year.  I always felt that hunters had a better appreciation for the environment than many environmentalists did.  Food chains need predators, and many had been killed by ranchers or other livestock owners who had a commercial interest in protecting their cattle population.  Hunters at least understand that meat doesn’t just pop-up cellophane wrapped.  It was a living creature once.  And here is my ethical dilemma with saving the whales: whales at least are free range.  Fish populations, such as northeast North America cod, have also been overfished.  Wild fish stocks have been depleted through overfishing globally and have been replaced with fish farms.  Cattle are grazed and then sent to feedlots to be fattened-up prior to slaughter.  Chicken and pigs are factory farmed.  The short lives of these creatures prior to slaughter is cruel and deplorable.  But, out of sight, out of mind.  The point is, eating KFC is likely a less ethical food choice than eating whale, if you examine the quality of life of the creature prior its being killed.  What can’t be lost is that chicken tends to also be some of the cheapest meat to buy. 

We know, at least, that this decision (ending factory farming) will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in history..

Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

Humans regard animals as worthy of protection only when they are on the verge of extinction.,

Paul Craig Roberts

Modern human lifestyle consumes vast amounts of energy.  Coal fueled the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century and powered the steam engine.  Steam engines had more to do with the demise and near extinction of both cetaceans and bison.  Faster whaling ships, coupled with both onshore and offshore processing of carcasses, made killing whales too easy – to the point that some species neared extinction.  Oil became the dominant fuel in the 20th century and remains so today.  Offshore crude oil accounts for around 30% of the global demand for oil.  According to Wikipedia, raising animals for human consumption accounts for approximately 40% of the total amount of agricultural output in industrialized countries. Grazing occupies 26% of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface, and feed crop production uses about one third of all arable land.  The human footprint has expanded and destroyed many natural habitats and taken a number of creatures to, or near the brink of, extinction, not only cetaceans.  The real question that needs to be addressed is what lifestyle choices of convenience are we really willing to give-up?  The majority of humans enjoy having electricity to keep all of our appliances going.  This includes our cell phones and laptop computers, as well as our refrigerators to keep food cold.  It includes our food choices.  Many humans enjoy the convenience of automobiles and airplane travel.  Saving the whales – or prioritizing their collective welfare – does not really make one an environmentalist.  There is a litany of lifestyle choices that contribute to our energy consumption that impacts the planet.  You cannot really be for saving the whales if you enjoy eating hamburgers bought at a drive-through window.

If there were no customers for offshore oil, there would be no marine seismic – or other geophysical – exploration.  There would be no need for airguns.  So, yes, let’s improve how energy is consumed.  Let’s explore and develop renewable energy resources where we can.  And let’s continue to improve the sources used in the marine seismic experiment.  Let’s try to minimize the impact that exploring for resources offshore makes.  Let’s improve our monitoring of cetaceans and make sure that airguns are not used when cetaceans are nearby.  Let’s continue to develop marine seismic vibrator’s as sources.  Marine seismic airguns have not really been used so long.  The real impact on the different species of cetaceans is not fully understood.  Nevertheless, concerns must be listened to and addressed.  Those in the marine seismic industry, or offshore oil and gas industry, are not focused on destroying the environment or in harming cetaceans.  That’s not the objective.  The objective is to make better maps so that drilling is safer and less risky.  Protesting over activities that you do not agree with is important for citizens.  But, protesting offshore activity is only meaningful when it is accompanied by a supporting lifestyle choice.  Protesting airguns will only make a difference if your personal lifestyle choices do not include the necessity for offshore oil.  And when this is true, marine airgun exploration will be unnecessary.

Man’s law changes with his understanding of man. Only the laws of the spirit remain always the same..

Native American Crow Tribe Saying

Forests and meat animals compete for the same land. The prodigious appetite of the affluent nations for meat means that agribusiness can pay more than those who want to preserve or restore the forest. We are, quite literally, gambling with the future of our planet – for the sake of hamburgers,

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation