This Climate Change Study Could Harm Whales and Dolphins—Is It Worth It?

Environmentalists are fighting a plan to study New Jersey’s coastline by blasting the ocean with high-decibel sound waves.

(Photo: Luis Robayo/Getty Images)

Jul 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Politics can make for strange bedfellows, and sometimes, so does the environment.

Case in point: Environmentalists have joined New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, in opposing, of all things, a climate change study funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Researchers from Rutgers University and the University of Texas plan to send ear-shattering sound blasts to the ocean floor off the New Jersey shore to create three-dimensional images of sediment lying thousands of feet beneath the seabed.

The study, scheduled to begin this summer, will examine how the coastline has advanced and retreated during times of historic climate change. “This knowledge will help scientists and policymakers cope with today’s rising ocean levels that threaten people who live, work and vacation along the shore,” Rutgers said in a statement.

But the Christie administration, most state environmental groups, and commercial and recreational fishing interests argue that the study would harm dolphins, whales, and other marine life by subjecting them to sounds blasts of 250 decibels or more every five seconds for 34 days.

Cassandra Ornell, a staff scientist for Clean Ocean Action, a coalition of more than 125 groups, conceded that opposing a federally funded climate change study “is kind of unusual for us.”

“It’s a little difficult, because we are not opposed to science,” Ornell said. “But when it comes to potential damage to marine life and people’s livelihood, that’s when a red flag goes up. Sea-level rise is a big concern, but science shouldn’t get a pass, especially when the public has said they don’t want this.”

Environmentalists worry that the constant, deafening blasts will distress and disorient marine mammals, such as dolphins, right whales, humpback whales, and seals that live or migrate near the shore. The noise can disrupt the animals’ communication, foraging, and breeding behavior.

Ornell said the sound blasts would affect at least 26 marine mammal species, as well as fish, invertebrates, and five species of threatened or endangered sea turtles. She said the federal permit would allow researchers to harass up to 690 marine mammals during the study.

Summer is also peak fishing season along the shore, when commercial and recreational anglers operate in nine of the 16 most profitable fisheries in the state, Ornell noted.

Last week, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection unsuccessfully sought a federal court injunction to stop the study. The state has appealed the ruling.

“It’s a matter of common sense,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesperson for the department. “We don’t want to risk our populations of fish and marine mammals for a scientific study that may not be necessary and could jeopardize our fishing industries and overall tourism industry.”

“This isn’t about being against climate change studies,” he added. “Our tourism economy is very tightly knitted to a healthy environment.”

The Jersey Shore accounts for about 75 percent of the $40 billion generated by tourism in the state, Hajna said.

The state wants to halt the study at least until major fish migrations are completed this summer. “If they did this over the winter, it would have less impact,” Hajna said. “But ideally we would just like to see this not happen.”

Rutgers spokesperson Carl Blesch said he could not comment on the controversy, citing the ongoing litigation. But in a statement, the university said five independent observers will accompany the researchers.

“Should there be any instances where there is the potential for disruption to sea animals, those observers are authorized to bring an immediate temporary halt to any surveying until any affected animals have left the area,” the Rutgers statement said.

For now, all eyes are on the appeal.

“If the state loses, I’m not sure there are other cards in our hand,” Ornell said. “But we will work with local fishermen and boating and diving communities to report any sign of harassment or stranding. All people enjoying or working on the water can be watchdogs for the marine environment.”