Seismic and Marine Sound Research

Overview

Seismic surveying uses rebounding sound to build up a picture of the sea floor and the geological structures up to 10 kilometres beneath it to investigate the presence of gas, oil and mineral reserves for future exploitation. Seismic surveying has been a significant concern for fishers and the communities that depend on fisheries for their livelihoods.

Much of this activity is conducted in Commonwealth waters outside 3NM State jurisdictional limits, there is also activity that occurs inside 3NM and/or operations can span both State and Commonwealth jurisdictions. This concern has been exacerbated with apparent increases in seismic exploration not only for oil but also for carbon sequestration.

While each State has its own regulatory authority and arrangements for overseeing and approving these activities inside 3NM, it is the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) who has responsibility for managing oil and gas industry activities in Commonwealth waters. Each time that a holder of exploration rights commences planning for a new survey, a stakeholder consultation process begins as the first stage of NOPSEMA’s environmental planning process. The purpose of this is to identify, evaluate and reduce risks identified to as low as reasonably practicable to the satisfaction of NOPSEMA and/or the State based regulator(s). 

An overview of NOPSEMA’s Environmental Plan assessment process (source)

Much of the discussion has been based on anecdotal and circumstantial evidence, leading the FRDC to invest in a range of projects to investigate those impacts, as well as to provide an evidentiary base to help stakeholders from mining and fishing to constructively work together. In addition, the FRDC have invested in improving engagement between the sectors as part of NOPSEMA’s mandated environmental plan submission process for offshore energy activities. 

The continued practice of seismic surveying will continue to position seismic is a priority for the fishing industry and spawn the need for research to address the concerns of the FRDC’s stakeholders. It is also important that the FRDC continues to leverage opportunities by further improving the FRDC’s and the seafood industry’s relationship with Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) and ensure that the best available objective science is undertaken to assess responses of marine fauna to seismic activity.

Research Management

The FRDC established a national coordination project led by Western Australia Fishing Industry Council to improve the environmental planning consultation process, by collating the available information for easy access by all parties to input into the understanding of potential risks (which is often due to a lack of information).

In addition, several Australian fishing and aquaculture sectors have highlighted specific concerns about the potential impacts of seismic surveys on their target species. The FRDC – often in collaboration with individual oil and gas entities – have (co-)funded several projects investigating these concerns. 

A summary of completed and current FRDC (co-)funded activities are provided below. This work sits within an extensive body of peer-reviewed research and grey literature exploring seismic-related effects on commercial and non-commercial fishing species, commercial fishing activities and the broad marine environment. This growing list of publications on the topic are available for download and review.

 

The funding pathway for marine seismic and sound research is through existing Research Advisory Committee and Industry Partnership Agreements investment process.

Research papers 

Completed FRDC Seismic Research Report Summaries

2012-008 “Assessing the impact of marine seismic surveys on southeast Australian scallop and lobster fisheries”

The final report for this project was independently peer reviewed by the FRDC and project steering committee.

The project investigated the potential impact of seismic surveys on economically important fishery species, specifically Southern Rock Lobster (Jasus edwardsii)and Commercial Scallop (Pecten fumatus). For Southern Rock Lobster, the research suggests that it is unlikely that seismic surveys cause immediate large scale mortality. Also there was no effect shown in early stage lobster embryos. However, no experiments were conducted on the full suite of embryonic or larval stages so effect on these stages are unknown. Exposure to airgun signals did cause some alteration to adult biology including depression of haemocytes available for immune responses, impairment of reflex behaviours for tail and righting control as well as damage to the sensory hairs on the statocyst (a balance sensory receptor).

With scallops, seismic exposure did not cause immediate mass mortality, however, there was a trend between exposure level and mortality with severely compromised physiology over a 4 month time frame after which there was no signs of recovery. There were also significant changes in behaviour and reflexes following exposure. These impacts could cause a reduced tolerance to other stressors but it is still unclear whether the physiological impairment would cause chronic mortality in timeframes beyond those in the project.

2013-209 “Optimising processes and policy to minimise business and operational impacts of seismic surveys on the fishing industry and oil and gas industry”

The final report has been completed following review by the FRDC.

The project aimed to improve processes of communication and build relationships between the fishing and petroleum industries so that there is a shared understanding of potential impacts (financial, operational and logistical) and how they could be minimised. During the project, the establishment of the National Offshores Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Agency (NOPSEMA) improved consultation processes. Case studies recognised areas of negative impact as well as examples of best practice. From these case studies four processes were developed to deal with issues identified:
* Having accessible, easy to use central website-based information on the two industry’s associated communication processes.
* Undertaking Roundtable discussion and feedback into overarching policy and process;
* Holding annual regional stakeholder meetings to discuss future planning and issues; and,
* Undertaking one-on-one industry/individual discussions.

2014-041 “Potential impact of low-frequency sound from seismic operations on benthic communities in the Gippsland Basin”

The final report for this project was independently peer reviewed by the FRDC and project steering committee.

This project was initiated to undertake a before and after assessment to quantify potential impacts from a 2D seismic survey undertaken by Geoscience Australia in the Gippsland Basin off the coast of Victoria. Initially the project was to obtain seafloor images and identify scallops via an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Four acoustic recording units were used with 3 being used in the vicinity of the seismic survey and one control. A number of dredge samples were also taken in areas outside of the seismic survey area to assess number of alive and dead scallops as well as the meat and gonad condition of scallops.

The project did have some issues with technology with the AUV footage prior to the seismic survey not being usable due to poor image quality. Additionally, one unit failed to record during the time that the survey was directly above it. The report has stated that there was no short term impact found and suggested as a recommendation that further studies should focus on longer term impacts (addressed below).

Current FRDC Seismic Research Report Summaries

2017-186 “Oil and Gas: National coordination - seismic and other issues”

This project was initiated to assist the seafood and petroleum industries in navigating NOPSEMA’s environmental plan process, in particular optimising stakeholder consultation. This project is anticipated to deliver a publicly accessible “one stop shop” for seismic-related research to inform consultation between the seafood and petroleum industries. This common knowledge platform would also underpin the definition of “best practice” consultation to use as a base for environment plan submissions. This project builds on the recommendations from FRDC project 2013-209.

2019-051 “Examining the potential impacts of seismic surveys on Octopus and larval stages of Southern Rock Lobster”

The overlap with the CGG marine seismic survey and the shelter-pot octopus fishery has raised concerns from the fishing industry about the potential impacts to Octopus and the fishers. Tank-based experiments simulating seismic exposure have resulted in high levels of damage in several species of Octopus, however, it is unclear how experiments conducted in tanks translate into the field.

Field-based seismic experiments have rarely been conducted on invertebrates, with no such studies conducted on Octopus. CCG has agreed to provide funds to fill the knowledge gap surrounding the potential impact of seismic surveying on Octopus and to do this in conjunction with their scheduled commercial scale marine seismic survey, with the lack of a full array often a perceived limitation of seismic research. 

To add value, the potential impact of seismic surveying on larval forms is being examined. Research suggests that there is potential for seismic air guns to kill larval crustaceans and molluscs, but to date there have been no dedicated studies to address this potential issue. There is some concern that there could be localised depletion of the larvae of commercially and ecologically important species, including decapod crustaceans and molluscs, such as Southern Rock Lobster and Commercial Scallops, respectively. The value adding component of this study provides the opportunity to conduct targeted research directly addressing this concern.

2019-072 “Multiple - Before After Control Impact (M-BACI) analysis of the effect of a 3D marine seismic survey on Danish Seine catch rates”

This project, a collaboration between CGG, SETFIA and FRDC and undertaken by Fishwell consulting, is assessing the effect of seismic testing on Danish seine catch rates in South Eastern Australia for Tiger Flathead and Eastern School Whiting. Field work is complete. An impact was detected immediately after the seismic survey. A further three phases were undertaken at roughly 100 days intervals to assess whether the effect was longer lasting. The data from these further three phases is currently being analysed.

 

More information

  • FISH Vol 26 number 2 Cooperative approach on seismic impacts - 'Western Australia's pearl industry is taking a new tack with seismic surveyors and oil and gas explorers.'
  • FISH Vol 25 number 4 Sound responses - ''Hearing' damage in Southern Rock Lobsters and a flinch response in Scallops are two effects identified in world-leading research into the long-term impact of seismic surveys on marine animals.'
  • FISH Vol 23 number 3 New wave of seismic engagement - 'The heightened profile of seismic activity in Australian waters is generating new science about potential effects, answering some questions and dispelling some misconceptions.'
  • FISH Vol 23 number 1 Sound effects - 'While humans harness sound to navigate the ocean and its riches, there are growing concerns about the potential impact of industrial noise pollution on marine ecosystems.'

Key contacts 

 

Project Number
Title
Status
2014-041
Potential impact of low-frequency sound from seismic operations on benthic communities in the Gippsland Basin
Completed
2017-142
Travel bursary: Sustainable Ocean Summit 2017, Canada
Completed
2016-214
Identification of factors which impact on the profitability of individual GABTS operators and the fishery as a whole
Completed
2017-186
Oil and Gas: National coordination - seismic and other issues
Current
2019-051
Examining the potential impacts of seismic surveys on Octopus and larval stages of Southern Rock Lobster
Current
2019-072
Multiple - Before After Control Impact (M-BACI) analysis of the effect of a 3D marine seismic survey on Danish Seine catch rates
Current
2012-008
Assessing the impact of marine seismic surveys on southeast Australian scallop and lobster fisheries
Completed
2013-209
Optimising processes and policy to minimise business and operational impacts of seismic surveys on the fishing industry and oil and gas industry
Completed
2004-049
The effects of western rock lobster fishing on the deepwater ecosystems off the west coast of Western Australia
Completed