Seismic testing graphic

Federal regulators have approved a second major seismic project off New Jersey, prompting further outcry from the state’s environmental community.

The vessel the U.S. Geological Survey is using to send pulses of sound into the sea floor from a 36-gun array was already 250 miles off Delaware on Sunday afternoon. The project, which began Saturday, will map the continental shelf — which could have ramifications in maritime law and commerce — and measure potential tsunami hazards from 100 to 300 miles off the East Coast.

This project uses the same ship, the Marcus G. Langseth, as a Rutgers University-led project that came to a halt earlier this month due to mechanical failure. But the USGS survey’s scope and scale is much larger: the Rutgers project used four guns 15 miles off Long Beach Island.

“The only good thing is that they’re using the same ship, so hopefully it keeps breaking down,” said Robert Schoelkopf, executive director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

A broad coalition of environmentalists, fishermen and politicians have come out in opposition to seismic testing this summer because of potential impacts to marine life and the various industries that rely upon it. Seismic researchers, many of them geologists and oceanographers, say protections are in place for sea creatures and that their work would help us learn about long-range threats, such as sea level rise.

State officials, who could not be reached for comment Sunday, took their objections over the Rutgers project to court, but it remains unclear if they will do the same for the USGS project in federal waters.

“The bottom line is there’s enough marine life out there that would be impacted by any type of testing, particularly if it’s more powerful than the Rutgers project,” said Ray Bogan, a spokesman for several fishing groups, including the state chapters of the Marine Trades Association and United Boatmen.

The Langseth left New York harbor Wednesday prior to the approval of its permit through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and began using its air guns Saturday.

Deborah Hutchinson, one of the lead USGS researchers, said operating in the Gulf Stream is challenging, particularly with regard to capturing images of the sea floor, but she believes the experienced crew will overcome any technical challenges.

Weather and heavy seas are another hurdle, with the air gun array towing behind the ship.

“We have our eyes on the eventual path of Tropical Storm Cristobal,” Hutchinson said. “If the storm path crosses our work area, the captain has final say when to recover the towed equipment, which would otherwise limit the ship’s maneuverability and pose a safety hazard.”

Hutchinson said the observers will monitor the area for marine mammals and endangered species and have the “complete, independent authority” to power down or complete shut down the seismic equipment.

“This strategy avoids, to the extent possible, exposing the animals to loud sounds,” she said.

Greg Mountain, the Rutgers professor who led the project off Long Beach Island, said the Langseth’s mechanical failures had all been addressed by last week. The USGS team left early to test their equipment in anticipation of receiving their permit, he said.

According to the NOAA permit, the USGS will be allowed to operate through September and again from April through August of 2015. The researchers are authorized to “take,” or inadvertently disrupt, a total of 19,428 protected animals over the two periods. The project is authorized to take 166 sperm whales and 499 bottlenose dolphins, as two examples.

The research team will be required to monitor the testing area and undertake certain protective measures. For instance, the airguns must be shut down if a North Atlantic right whale is spotted and cannot resume until 30 minutes after the last documented sighting.

“You have to wonder how much of this is about science and how much is for other purposes,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Tittel said he worries that the numerous seismic testing projects will be used to prepare for intensive oil and natural gas exploration offshore.

So far, however, only one of the three major projects to move forward this year has explicitly stated such exploration as its goal. The results of the Rutgers and USGS surveys, both sponsored at least in part by the National Science Foundation, will be made publicly accessible.

“The most important impact will be to sea life,” Tittel said. “That’s still the real concern.”

Schoelkopf said it’s difficult to determine if the Rutgers project, which was aborted shortly after it began, caused any real harm to marine life. There have been several instances of deep-water marine species coming ashore and there’s also been an abnormal number of sea turtle strandings this year, but he said the bodies have been too badly decomposed to determine a cause of death.

And it will likely be even more difficult to determine the possible impacts of the USGS project.

“If they’re doing it farther offshore, that’ll make it even more difficult to tell the causation,” he said.

The telltale signs of injury due to seismic testing includes damage to the inner ear, Schoelkopf said, including blood in the ears. Affected animals may also suffer damage to their internal organs.

Prior to the official announcement of the permit issuance, Clean Ocean Action Executive Director Cindy Zipf said opponents were waiting for final word to decide what options were available.

“The coalition is very much opposed, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens,” she said.

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection previously said they would assign conservation officers to independently monitor the Rutgers project 15 miles off Long Beach Island. It’s unclear how feasible a similar response would be for the USGS study, which would start about 100 miles offshore

Schoelkopf said it’s still possible for the states affected by both the USGS survey and the larger oil exploration proposal to band together and file litigation. But not every state has been opposed, he said.

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

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@wjmckelvey on Twitter

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