Atlantic Coral Reef Discovery Raises Questions About Looming Seismic Surveys

A giant deep-sea reef off South Carolina has deepened environmentalists' concerns about a planned hunt for oil and gas reserves.

In August, a team of researchers working some 160 miles off the South Carolina coast made a startling discovery that upended the scientific community’s understanding of where deep-sea corals thrive off the Eastern Seaboard.

There, a half mile below the water’s surface, scientists aboard the famous deep-sea submersible Alvin encountered mountains of ghost-white Lophelia pertusa, a stony coral species. Using sonar mapping of the ocean floor, they estimated that this previously unknown reef spans at least 85 linear miles.

“The possibilities for where Lophelia could be forming reefs are now bigger than they used to be,” expedition chief scientist Erik Cordes said shortly after the find. “That’s a real fundamental change for how we do exploration out here.”

But the discovery also raised concerns that the federal government may have underestimated the effect that proposed seismic surveys for oil and gas would have on marine life in Atlantic waters.

Those concerns took on greater urgency last Friday when the National Marine Fisheries Service issued permits that allow five companies to “incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals” with seismic airgun blasting in their search for fossil fuel reserves in a swath of ocean stretching from Delaware to Florida. The looming seismic surveys will involve firing extremely loud bursts of air through the water, a process scientists warn can be devastating to marine life.

The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act safeguards all marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, seals and manatees, and makes it illegal to incidentally “take” — defined as “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill” — such species without a government permit. The five companies must still obtain permits from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to conduct the tests. But during a congressional hearing in January, BOEM’s acting director said the agency would “promptly” issue approvals within two weeks of NMFS giving a green light.

There is plenty of data that shows that [the] energy industry can cause damage to deep sea ecosystems. Sandra Brooke, coral ecologist at Florida State University

In early October, a little more than a month after HuffPost first reported on the reef discovery, Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent a letter to NMFS and BOEM on behalf of his and several other environmental groups. The presence of the reef has deepened environmentalists’ concerns and “calls into question the accuracy” of the agencies’ sound propagation models, he wrote.

Jasny urged officials to “carefully consider the implications of this significant discovery as part of their ongoing review” of seismic permits and other offshore oil and gas activity.

The models that NMFS relied on to issue the “incidental take” permits come from a 2014 BOEM environmental impact statement looking at the potential effects of multiple offshore activities in Atlantic waters. The acoustic models use data that suggests the Atlantic seafloor is composed almost entirely of sand and clay. While soft sediments like clay and mud absorb sound, harder surfaces can send it back into the water column.

Along with miles of corals, Cordes and his team encountered large swaths of hard seafloor beneath the Gulf Stream during their August expedition.

“These types of seafloor will reflect sound very differently than sand or clay, and could change the results of the models,” Cordes, a deep-sea ecologist and professor at Temple University, told HuffPost in an email. “I don’t know how significant the changes would be, but the potential impacts should be explored before seismic surveys are conducted in the area.”

In initial comments submitted in July 2017, Jasny included a map produced by the Southern Environmental Law Center that predicted hard-bottom substrate and coral habitat within a portion of the proposed seismic survey area. He told HuffPost that by not accounting for the reef in their analysis, the agencies likely underestimated the number of whales and other marine mammals that will be affected by future seismic blasting.

A 2017 map of predicted coral habitat and hard-bottom substrate off the coast of the southeastern United States.
A 2017 map of predicted coral habitat and hard-bottom substrate off the coast of the southeastern United States.

A spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of NMFS, referred HuffPost’s questions to BOEM, noting that the Nov. 30 authorizations are specific to marine mammals and that any protection measures for corals would be covered by permits issued by BOEM.

In its final notice granting the “incidental take” permits, NOAA addressed the concerns Jasny raised, writing that “the use of sand and clay for propagation modeling is appropriate” and that BOEM’s acoustic modeling “accounts for variability in [seafloor] composition throughout the planned survey area.” NOAA also said in its response that rough coral habitat would cause sound from the seismic blasts to scatter, resulting in a “severe” loss of noise.

BOEM spokeswoman Marjorie Weisskohl told HuffPost in an email that the agencies’ impact models are “by design conservative, which results in an over-estimate” of how many animals will be harassed or harmed. 

The presence of a large reef certainly changes how seismic shock waves move through the ocean, said Kevin Heaney, a sound propagation expert for the Atlantic Deepwater Ecosystem Observatory Network, or ADEON, which monitors natural and human activity in the Mid- and South Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf.

Heaney agrees the recent reef discovery raises questions about the validity of the federal agencies’ models. But he questioned equating coral to a hard sediment that would reflect sound. Like NOAA, he noted that corals are rough and can cause a loss of sound propagation.

Concluding that there will be a spike in the number of animals harassed by future seismic work, he said, “is not supported by the simple presence of coral on the seafloor.”

In August, scientists aboard the research ship Atlantis discovered a dense coral reef off the coast of South Carolina. This p
In August, scientists aboard the research ship Atlantis discovered a dense coral reef off the coast of South Carolina. This picture was taken by cameras mounted on the deep-sea submersible Alvin. 

The reef discovery this summer was made as part Deep Search, a 5-year project that comes as the Trump administration is proposing a sweeping offshore drilling plan that, if approved, would open huge swaths of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans to oil exploration.

The goal of the expedition, which is funded by the NOAA, BOEM and the U.S. Geological Survey, is to identify and ultimately safeguard sensitive habitats in a swath of ocean that remains largely unexplored. Cordes told HuffPost during the expedition that this complex and diverse coral habitat must be protected from oil and gas development.

Jasny also expressed concern over how future seismic surveys could affect the reef itself, as well as the fisheries and other critters that might rely on the reef. And Diane Hoskins, a campaign director at Oceana, one of the groups that signed on to Jasny’s letter, wonders what it will take for the Trump administration to stop trying to force offshore drilling on the American public.

“The recent discovery of giant deep sea corals off the coast of South Carolina is just further proof of the [recklessness] of this plan,” she wrote in an email.

A study this year by a team of researchers in Australia found no evidence that seismic activity damages deep-water corals. And BOEM says it is not aware of any studies that show seismic surveys could adversely affect coral.

Approving seismic surveys would be a significant step toward allowing oil and gas companies to drill on the Atlantic coast for the first time since the 1980s.

Sandra Brooke, a coral ecologist at Florida State University and member of the Deep Search research team, wrote in an email that while it’s unclear what this development might look like, “there is plenty of data that shows that [the] energy industry can cause damage to deep sea ecosystems.” If drilling occurs, she expects BOEM will put operational restrictions in place, as it does in the Gulf of Mexico.

BOEM says its upcoming permitting decision will consider the newly discovered reef as well as all available information about the effect of seismic noise on corals.

“New information from the DEEP SEARCH study could be useful in pre-leasing or post-leasing decisions, such as those affecting sensitive habitats that are the study’s focus,” Weisskohl wrote in an email.

This article has been updated with a comment from Oceana.