Seismic testing approval in potential clash with whale migration

Documents released yesterday regarding the seismic testing approved by the Federal regulator off the Newcastle Coastline show it risks clashing with the start of this year's whale migration, according to Greens NSW MP and Marine spokesperson Justin Field.

The details were release overnight with the publication of the Environment Plan Summary and Statement of Reasons , coming a fortnight after the announcement of the approval.

Seismic testing has been approved to run for up to four day for 24 hours a day between the 15th of March and 30th of May, excluding the Easter period from 23 March to 8 April.

Mr Field called on the NSW Government to intervene and ensure the proposed testing for oil and gas did not go ahead.  

"This is the wrong project at the wrong time in the wrong area and will put at risk our precious marine life including threatened and vulnerable whales," he said.

"The approval runs to 30 May. While the official start of the whale migration is 1 June, last year the NSW Environment Department issued a media release announcing sighting of whales along the coast in late May. 

"Allowing night time operation means it will be next to impossible to identify whale movements in the danger area of the blasts, risking threatened and vulnerable species like the Southern Right Whale and Humpback Whale.”

The seismic testing will occur in an area that is recognised to be home to 22 threatened species including whales, turtles and migratory birds and has the potential to injure fish up to 1km from the air blasts.

"The document shows that a large number of threatened and vulnerable species occur in the area of the testing, Mr Field said.

"The report accepts that fin fish are likely to suffer permanent injury and death within 70 metres of the airgun and accept temporary hearing loss is possible out to 1km.

"This testing will mean a massive air explosion every 3-4 seconds for a period of 3-4 days, 24 hours a day and the company has acknowledged the risk of animal mortality.

"The company has paid lip service to the concerns expressed by commercial fishers, especially to the important fishing grounds known as 'The Farm'.

"The Environment Plan summary claims fisherman accepted their wouldn't be adverse impacts as a result of the testing as they has indicated they would simply move to other areas. But when you read further into the document you see that the official consultations reported that fisherman were actually saying they would face increased costs from having to travel further and fish longer because of the temporary loss of these grounds.

"They also expressed a lack of confidence in the company's claims that fish stocks wouldn't be impacted into the future.

"There is a real issue with transparency and consultation with the federal regulator. It's unacceptable that an approval is granted before the public is able to see and respond to the environment plans of the company.

"The Greens are opposed to this exploration and opposed to any plan for future oil or gas development off the NSW Coast.

"We need to end the obsession with fossil fuels which is put our planet and the environment we love and rely on at risk."

Environment Plan Summary and Statement of Reasons available here: https://www.nopsema.gov.au/assets/epdocuments/A591778.pdf

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Excerpts from the Plan Summary

 

A search of the EPBC Act Protected Matters Database was undertaken to identify the likelihood of occurrence of listed fauna within and around the Operational Area. The search resulted in the following areas/species identified (Table 3-2):

  • 36 listed threatened species (22 likely to occur in the survey area);
  • 42 migratory species (23 considered likely to occur in the survey area and 23 also listed as

threatened); Asset Energy Pty Ltd Baleen 2D HR Seismic Survey Environment Plan Summary Rev 2

17

  • 32 whales and other cetaceans;
  • No World Heritage Properties nor National or Commonwealth Heritage Places;
  • No Wetlands of International Importance;
  • No Threatened Ecological Communities;
  • No Critical Habitats;
  • No Australian Marine Parks; and
  • No KEFs.

 

On fishing (p36): 

Asset Energy recognises the economic importance of catches in the periods leading up to peak seafood consumption periods including Christmas and Easter each year, and has scheduled the survey to avoid these times.

Asset Energy has identified that the Operational Area overlaps a highly-profitable and viable fishing region, which was colloquially named “the Farm” (Figure 3-13).

However, stakeholders informed Asset Energy that adverse impacts were not and would not be recorded on Logbook Return Records, as fishers move fishing efforts elsewhere.

Whale risk table on page 48

Fish risk table on page 49

Page 10 of Statement of Reasons:

Results of modelling in the EP indicate that it is unlikely that sound levels may cause injury to finfish beyond 70 m from the source using conservative impact thresholds based on published literature. Within 1 km, the risk from temporary and recoverable hearing loss to individual and populations of fish is moderate and beyond 1 km, is slight and negligible, which are acceptable levels.

Response from fishers in consultation (From EP)

The main concerns raised by fishers during the public consultation process included:

  • Physical exclusion from fishing grounds (especially during prime fishing periods i.e. Christmas and Easter);
  • Physiological impact on lobster larvae; and
  • Behavioural responses of fish species to seismic activity resulting in a loss of catch.

At the consultation meeting (25 May 2017), fishers identified the region as a highly-profitable and viable fishing region, which was nicknamed “the Farm”. Fishers expressed concern regarding the damage to local fish species and fishing activity due to the previous seismic surveys conducted. The meeting noted that this impact would not be recorded on Logbook Return Records as fishers move fishing efforts elsewhere, but it does impact on catch efficiencies and creates more cost to a business in locating alternate fish stocks. Stakeholders noted that fish from the areas were dead and rotting on the seafloor and coming up in the trawl nets. It appeared to these fishers that targeted fish species did not return to the area for many months afterwards.

Also, at the meeting, fishers advised that the area was considered of significance for the local commercial and recreational fishing fleets. Due to the use of the single gun and streamer, it was emphasised that there would be a lower likelihood for an impact in comparison to previous years. However, several commercial fishers and recreational fishing representatives expressed that the area was considered too important and sensitive to risk the consequence of impact to the commercial and recreationally important species. Additionally, concerns were expressed that there is no true knowledge regarding the potential impacts and the consequences of the survey to fish, which was of great concern to the fishers.

 

 


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