The Marcus G. Langseth cruising off California.

NSF/UNOLS

The Marcus G. Langseth cruising off California.

Updated: U.S. court rejects New Jersey's request to block research cruise; state to appeal

A federal judge yesterday rejected a request from the state of New Jersey to block a research cruise that would use sound blasts to map seafloor sediments off the Garden State’s coast. But state officials say they will appeal the decision to a federal appeals court.

 The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on 3 July asked a federal court to at least temporarily stop the planned research, citing concerns that the acoustic mapping could disturb wildlife and disrupt tourism and fishing. Proponents of the research, however, say the critics are misinformed and plan to move ahead. The research ship is already cruising off the New Jersey coast.

In their legal challenge, state officials argue that the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) did not follow proper procedures in conducting environmental impact studies and issuing the necessary permits. NSF finalized its environmental study of the project on 1 July, finding it would have “no significant impact.” And NOAA issued the permits required under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“We have made our concerns clear … and remain hopeful that, at the very least, this initiative will be rescheduled for a less impactful time of year," said New Jersey DEP Commissioner Bob Martin in a statement. "The timing of this program will be detrimental to various marine species that migrate and breed off the New Jersey coast and will negatively impact the commercial and recreational fishing industries, and related tourism, that relies heavily on these resources.”

Scientists from New Jersey’s Rutgers University and the University of Texas are planning to conduct acoustic imaging within a 12-kilometer by 50-kilometer rectangle 25 km to 85 km off the state’s coast. The study, which would use an NSF-owned vessel operated by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is aimed at better understanding sea-level rise that occurred tens of millions of years ago. Scientists say the work could, by shedding insights on the past, inform policymakers on how to prepare for future sea-level rise in a warming world. The issue of sea-level rise has been salient in the Garden State, especially since Superstorm Sandy devastated much of the Jersey shoreline almost 2 years ago.

Scientists and environmental groups are usually allies when it comes to studying climate change impacts. But this is not the first time that research using sound-producing “air guns” to map the ocean floor has put the two groups in conflict. The guns, which are towed behind ships, use pressurized air to produce sound waves that penetrate and rebound off of seafloor sediments. Researchers can map and characterize the sediments using instruments that measure the time it takes the sound waves to spread and echo. The approach is widely used in the oil and gas industry to locate potential drilling areas. The noise, however, has been implicated in bothering and possibly even injuring marine mammals and other creatures, leading to increased regulation and lawsuits, which have delayed some research cruises.

In New Jersey, such concerns are top-of-mind for environmentalists and politicians from both parties. U.S. representatives Chris Smith (R–NJ) and Frank LoBiondo (R–NJ) have come out in opposition to doing the testing, at least until the federal government gives the public more time to comment and to get a better understanding of the research’s impacts. So has Representative Frank Pallone (D–NJ).

The researchers, however, are pressing ahead as their vessel, the Marcus G. Langseth, set off to sea last week. The leader of the project—marine geologist Gregory Mountain of Rutgers—and NSF press officials declined comment, citing the pending litigation. But other institutions running the project are calling opponents’ concerns misinformed. The acoustic-imaging studies are a “noninvasive” procedure, says Carl Blesch, a Rutgers spokesman. And earlier this year, Mountain noted that past imaging studies in the area used sound sources twice as loud as what the researchers plan to use this year, with no documented harm to wildlife.

Connie Barclay, a NOAA fisheries spokeswoman, notes that NSF, not NOAA, had the final say on whether the research would happen and adds that public comment on the proposed permits yielded even tougher mitigation measures than originally proposed. They include putting independent observers aboard the ship to monitor for potential disturbances to wildlife. “Those observers are authorized to bring an immediate temporary halt to any surveying until any affected animals have left the area,” Barclay says.

Opponents of the project aren’t satisfied. In particular, they argue that NOAA improperly denied New Jersey the chance to review the project for consistency with its own coastal zone management program and that NSF violated its own regulations by not opening its final authorization to 30 days of public comment.

*Update, 9 July, 11 a.m.: This story has been updated to include the judge's rejection of the New Jersey request.

Posted in Environment