Voters in Florida this week approved a ban on offshore drilling — a measure designed to protect marine life and the tourism industry.
Aaron Rice, a research associate with the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology studies the production and perception of sounds by fishes and whales, including sounds from oil and gas exploration. He says Florida’s ban on offshore drilling is encouraging for marine life, but sounds from oil exploration can still travel to Florida waters from neighboring states.
"From an environmental side of things, this is an encouraging development. I’ve been active in briefing government officials on impacts of ocean noise on marine life, and explaining possible impacts that oil and gas exploration and extraction would have if the Atlantic coast were opened up for drilling. In terms of technical details, drilling itself is only part of the problem. Much of the ocean noise impacts to marine life results from exploring for subsea oil deposits through the use of seismic airgun surveys (and this happens to identify where to drill). These airgun surveys are extremely loud, last for months, and travel over 500 km (we’ve published work on this in the Gulf of Mexico in 2016). These sounds from airguns overlap with the frequency range of peak hearing sensitivity in many whales and fish, and may lead to individual- and population-level impacts.
"An interesting legal question that will emerge is that because these oil exploration sounds travel such far distances, they will likely cross state waters. It will be interesting to see what Florida is legally able to do should oil exploration be permitted in Georgia or the Carolinas, where these sounds impact Florida’s marine life. In addition to its reefs and subtropical marine ecosystems, the northern Atlantic coast of Florida is a critical habitat area for North Atlantic right whales, which come down to Florida to calve in the winters. The fact that Florida has banned this activity is good news for the ocean, though additional noise sources threatening Florida marine life will remain."