Conservation Groups Sue Government Agencies over Seismic Surveys

The National Resources Defense Council, Inc. (NRDC) and several other conservationist groups filed a complaint against a group of government officials and agencies, including the Departments of Commerce and the Interior, in the District of Maryland on Thursday. The NRDC is opposing the federal government’s approval of seismic airgun surveys that will allegedly contribute to the disturbing, injuring or killing , also known as the“take,” of aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico.

The defendants include Janet Coit, Assistant Administrator for Fisheries for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the Departments of Commerce and the Interior.

The complaint explained that in March 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a Biological Opinion under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that found that “anticipated seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico would contribute to the extinction of the endangered Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale, of which only about 50 individual whales remain.” On the final day of the Trump administration, the Service published the Seismic Rule “that authorizes harm from five years of seismic airgun blasting in the Gulf of Mexico under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).” The plaintiffs argue that the Seismic Rule, which allows the take of up to one-third of the species, is more than a “negligible impact” on the species as protected by the MMPA. 

The plaintiffs detailed that “the ocean is an acoustic world” and that marine animals are more sensitive to even acute changes in the acoustics of the ocean. Sound also travels faster and farther in water. The seismic airgun surveys “fire intense blasts of energy into the water about every 10 to 12 seconds for days, weeks, or months at a time depending on the length of the survey. A large seismic array can produce effective levels of sound—above 250 decibels—greater than that of virtually any other man-made source, save explosives.” The plaintiffs worried that this could lead to the extinction of the Bryde’s whale, and the take of countless species that reside in the area.

The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief with declarations that the Defendants violated the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Administrative Procedure Act; vacating the Seismic Rule, Biological Opinion, PEIS and the Bureau’s November 30th, 2020 Record of Decision; enjoining the Defendants from authorizing the take with seismic airgun surveys; attorney’s fees and costs; and other relief.

The plaintiffs are represented by Peter J. DeMarco and others for the National Resources Defense Council, John C. Keeney Jr. for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, Christopher Gowen and others for Center of Biological Diversity, and Christopher D. Eaton and others for the Healthy Gulf and Surfrider Foundation.