BARNEGAT LIGHT, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey environmental officials will seek a court order blocking a plan to carry out seismic research by blasting the ocean floor with sound waves.
The state Department of Environmental Protection told the Associated Press the department will seek an injunction Thursday in federal court to block the plan, which opponents say could harm or kill whales, dolphins and other marine life.
Environmentalists, fishing groups and elected officials gathered on Long Beach Island Wednesday to oppose the plan by Rutgers University, the University of Texas, and the National Science Foundation for research on sediments deposited on the ocean floor by changing global sea levels dating back 60 million years.
Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, which has led the fight against the proposal, said the approach of Tropical Storm Arthur, making its way up the East Cast this week, is a metaphorical warning against the plan.
"I have to think that the ocean is sending these people a message by brewing up a storm that's going to rock that boat and show that the ocean is mad as hell about this," she said. "This study will blast the ocean with sound waves that are orders of magnitude louder than anything humans have ever heard, every five seconds, 24 hours a day, for 30 days. To think that won't cause profound harm to marine life and to the industries that depend on the ocean is outrageous and appalling."
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration issued a permit Tuesday allowing marine animals to be disturbed as part of the research. The National Science Foundation still needs to issue a final environmental assessment and a decision document that addresses whether the research is authorized to go forward.
Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for NOAA, said the agency acted after extensive scientific review of the plan, and adopted measures including larger zones where the research would be prohibited.
"Some of the mitigation measures include observers listening and watching for marine mammals, required shutdowns of the air gun array for North Atlantic right whales observed; passive acoustic monitoring to detect vocalizations from marine mammals beneath the ocean surface, and speed/course alterations to avoid marine mammals," she wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
The study aims to investigate features such as river valleys cut into coastal plain sediments now buried under nearly 3,300 feet of younger sediment and flooded by today's ocean. But some environmental groups also believe the research could be used to probe for undersea oil and gas deposits in the event drilling is opened off the New Jersey coast someday.
Kirk Larson, the mayor of Barnegat Light and a commercial scallop fisherman, said the seismic research will be carried out in prime fishing spots.
"Where they're going to be doing this is right across the scallop beds, where we've been leaving them alone for the past three years and letting them grow," he said. "What's it going to do to their spawning? What's it going to do to the food chain?"
He also noted an irony in strict federal regulations that require fishermen to avoid scooping turtles up in their nets.
"They make us bend over backward not to harm turtles," he said. "And they let these groups just go out there and blast away."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC