U.S. researchers have asked Canada to grant a controversial seismic vessel access to the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents, a marine protected area 250 kilometers (155 miles) off British Columbia's coast and a habitat of endangered blue whales, threatened fin whales, and other marine life.
On behalf of Living Oceans Society and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Ecojustice has filed a lawsuit alleging that Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs cannot grant clearance to a foreign vessel that is expected to harass marine mammals in violation of Canadian law.
The plaintiff environmental groups are seeking a temporary injunction against the seismic research on Friday, August 14 in Federal Court in Ottawa.
On August 21, the RV Marcus Langseth, owned by the U.S. National Science Foundation and operated by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, is scheduled to leave Astoria, Oregon for a month-long expedition to explore beneath the Pacific sea floor using loud blasts of low-frequency sound.
Blue whales are now beginning to resume their migrations from southern California to the north Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Zoran Kovacevic)
"To ensure compliance with environmental laws, Canada should deny clearance to this vessel and refuse to sanction the harassment of endangered whales," says Lara Tessaro, the Ecojustice lawyer who represents the environmental groups.
"Seismic testing is known to cause hearing loss and behavioral disturbances in whales," says Kim Wright of Living Oceans Society, "Any research needs to be done in a way that does not threaten marine life in the area."
Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation for use by U.S. universities, research institutes and government agencies, the 235 foot, 3834 ton RV Marcus Langseth generates three-dimensional images of magma chambers, faults and other structures miles below the seabed.
The ship is designed to pulse sound through seabottoms and read the return signals with arrays of hydrophones towed in "streamers" stretching as long as five miles.
The plaintiff groups complain that the RV Marcus Langseth "would cause intense acoustic disturbance from a 36 air gun seismic array, which would blast at 180 decibels every two or three minutes."
Steam rises from a vent in the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents Marine Protected Area. (Photo courtesy University of Washington, ROPOS, and Neptune Canada)
Columbia University said in a statement today, "The Langseth is operated in accordance with rules and regulations set forth by U.S. governmental entities and laws, and received a Letter of Agreement from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for the study. As a precaution, onboard observers monitor underwater sounds on a 24-hour per-day basis to detect marine mammals, and ship operations are shut down immediately if marine mammals are detected near the ship.
The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, LDEO, says on its website. "Before turning on the sound, the ship will search for submerged animals' vocalizations with the ship's microphones, as well as post observers to search visually from deck and, if needed, in aircraft or onshore."
Known as ETOMO: Endeavour Seismic Tomography Experiment, the research investigates the molten rock that is found beneath the Endeavour segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge. The scientific team is led by Dr. Doug Toomey of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon, and includes scientists from the University of Washington.
Columbia University says, "The primary purpose of this study is to learn more about how the structure and changes to the ocean floor contribute to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions that threaten safety and lives along the Pacific Northwest."
The Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents were designated as Canada's first Marine Protected Area in 2003 to protect the deep ocean hydrothermal vents and unique species that live there.
"If marine animals can't find safety in the few areas set aside for them, where will they find it?" says CPAWS National Oceans Manager Sabine Jessen, "They have little chance of survival in the long term without these refuges from human disturbance."
R/V Marcus G. Langseth (Photo courtesy LDEO)
Tessaro told ENS in an interview that there is a difference between American and Canadian law with regard to harassing marine mammals.
In the United States, somebody who is going to conduct activities that harass or take marine mammals and should be mitigated can simply get a permit.
In Canada, two different laws apply. First, the marine mammal regulations flatly prohibit harassment. No one can obtain a permit to harass a whale or dolphin that is not at risk.
Second, under the Species At Risk Act, permits can be granted to harass endangered and threatened species, such as the blue whales and fin whales found in the vicinity of the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents, but the researchers must take all reasonable measures to mitigate against harm to the animals.
"Our complaint against the federal government is that they are not using this provision," Tessaro said. "You can obtain a permit under the Species At Risk Act but LDEO has not done so."
Tessaro said that Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials who have examined the LDEO proposal "won't give us their advice, they refused last Friday."
"We've heard that they recommend additional mitigation," she said.
If researchers are to be allowed to conduct seismic testing in a Canadian marine protected area, says Tessaro, "it is better do it by permit - not just with a wink and nod."
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.