Following a sustained and strategic campaign lead by Wild Migration, a proposal to conduct a 3D seismic survey 100km from the west end of Kangaroo Island has been placed under unprecedented scrutiny under Australia's national environmental laws – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).
The offshore oil and gas exploration proposal is for 70 days of seismic surveying within a very important upwelling system – the Kangaroo Island Canyons and Pool – that feeds the surrounding ecosystem and critical habitat for Australian sea lions, New Zealand fur seals as well as migrating blue, southern right whales, fin, sei, beaked and sperm whales, southern right whale dolphins, southern bluefin tuna and significant numbers of migratory sea-birds and resident common and bottlenose dolphins, orca, and great white sharks.
Wild Migration Policy Targets
Objective one will be for the Australian Government to ‘reject’ or place significant ‘controls’ on proposals to explore for oil and gas in the Kangaroo Island Canyons and Pool, on the grounds that there is insufficient certainty that the activities will not cause harm.
Objective two will seek to trigger the reform of Australian seismic survey guidelines and processes concerning offshore oil and gas exploration to better reflect current science and include all species of NES.
Objective three will be to leverage the experiences of this project to influence the discussions within the CBD and CMS processes.
Australian sea lions
Australian sea lions (Neophoca cinerea) are recognised to be one of the world’s most endangered pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) species. They are classified as Endangered by the IUCN, because of their now small and genetically fragmented small population. Population declines are documented at some colonies and most major colonies are at already risk from fishery by-catch.
They breed in shallow, protected pools in which pups congregate around rock or vegetation shelter, but hunt and feed in offshore feeding grounds. The breeding cycle of the Australian sea-lion is unusual within the pinniped family, in that it is an 18 month cycle and is not synchronised between colonies. The duration of the breeding season can range from 5 to 9 months. Young can be born anytime from January to June after a gestation period of about 12 months. Despite the fact that females give birth to only one young and may not breed again for two to three years, pup mortality is high in the first six months after birth. About 10 days after the pup is born its mother starts going to sea again to feed, spending about 2 days at sea and about 1.5 days back ashore, until the pup is weaned. Her energy budget is critical during this time. Mothers nurse their pups for 15-18 months but some pups can be nursed for up to 23 months by the quarter of females who do not pup each breeding season.
The breeding cycle of Australian sea-lion means that each of the pupping grounds, and their associated feeding grounds are critical habitat.
Noise and sea lions - an international issue
In the ocean, acoustic energy (sound) propagates efficiently, travelling fast and potentially over great distances, in some circumstance hundreds of kilometers with little loss in energy. Sound propagation can be affected by the frequency of the sound, water depth and also density differences within the water column that vary with temperature and pressure. During seismic surveys, a predominantly low frequency high intensity sound pulse is emitted every few seconds by an array of guns, with the sound pressure depending on the size of the array. Surveys typically operate 24 hours/day over a period of one to four months.
Noise pollution has been assessed as a pressure of potential concern for Australian sea lions. The Australian Government acknowledges that pinnipeds are likely to be susceptible to increased noise levels or increased noise pollution— for example, from seismic survey, construction or operational activities. The impacts of noise disturbance on Australian pinnipeds have not been investigated. Studies from elsewhere and on similar species indicate that they may be impacted by seismic surveys and other sources of noise, such as shipping or construction. Elsewhere in the world seals are known to display strong avoidance behaviour (swimming rapidly away from the source) and cessation of feeding in response to seismic surveys. Similar avoidance responses were documented during trials with grey seals: they changed from making foraging dives and moved away from the source, and some seals hauled out, possibly to avoid the noise. Responses to more powerful commercial arrays may be more extreme and longer lasting, and occur at greater distances. Given the status of Australian sea lions and in light of likely increases in noise generating activities within or in proximity to Australian sea lion habitats, this pressure is legally of potential concern.
Concerns over effects of seismic surveys have been expressed by the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS), the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the International Maritime organization (IMO), the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) and the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (HELCOM) and by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The most recent Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Decision XI/18 on the impacts of anthropogenic underwater noise on marine and coastal biodiversity that encouraged governments to take measures to “minimize the significant adverse impacts of anthropogenic underwater noise on marine biodiversity, including the full range of best available technologies and best environmental practices where appropriate and needed” and to “develop indicators and explore frameworks for monitoring underwater noise for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity, and report on progress to a meeting of the Subsidiary Body prior to the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties” likely to be held in 2015.