NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–Scientists at Rutgers University plan to utilize a swath of the Jersey seabed near Barnegat Inlet, for a seismic imaging research project.
Led by geologist, Gregory Mountain, a specialized National Science Foundation research vessel, the Marcus G. Langseth, is slated to crisscross a rectangular area 7 by 31 miles across, starting 15 miles southeast of the inlet to conduct seismic imaging.
The scientists conducting the research say that the imaging, which uses sound to penetrate the water, will take a full month to complete and can help uncover a topographic history of the seabed from as long ago as 50 million years.
Scientists also hope they will be able to “see” the deep channels, sandbars, lagoons, bays, and beaches of the time, and better predict the Jersey shore’s topographic future.
Despite the knowledge that could be potentially gained by imaging Jersey's ocean floor, the scientists have received backlash from environmentalists and fishers who launched a campaign against the research project.
More than 15,000 individuals have signed a petition calling on Rutgers President Robert Barchi to cancel the study, and planes were flown along the Jersey Shore with banners that read, “STOP RUTGERS OCEAN BLASTING.ORG – #SAVENJMARINELIFE!”
The environmentalists, who are usually supportive of climate change studies, are alarmed by this scientific proposal saying that it may harm whales and other marine mammals in Jersey waters with the seismic imaging’s piercing sound, and adversely affect NJ's lucrative fishing industry and Jersey’s summer tourist economy along with it.
"A research study… proposed for this June to blast the ocean with sound pulses that are orders of magnitude louder than a jet engine taking off, every 5 seconds, 24 hours a day, for 30 days," reads the petition.
"These explosive sounds will have devastating impacts on all marine life, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish and shellfish. They will also harm NJ’s tourism and fishing industries."
The environmentalist groups also fear that it could open the door for more dangerous seismic testing for oil and natural gas.
Also in solidarity with the environmentalists are the New Jersey fishing industry.
Jimmy Loygren, the spokesman for the Fisherman’s Dock Cooperative, in Point Pleasant, argued that the sound from the seismic imaging’s sound scare away fish, and kill fish larvae, scallops, and other sea life.
However, Loygren told the Assocaited Press, “Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of scientific proof.”
At an event on May 23, Cindy Zipf, the Executive Director of Clean Ocean Action urged Rutgers President Robert Barchi to stop the project.
“New Jerseyans are tenacious about protecting their Jersey Shore – from pollution to Superstorm Sandy. Science doesn’t get a pass,” said Zipf, according to the AP article.
However, the Rutgers scientists have responded to the Jersey fisherman and passionate environmentalists stating that the research will not harm the animals, and valuable data will remain hidden if they do not proceed.
If the expedition takes place, “I predict we’re going to see things we have never seen off the coast of New Jersey,” Mountain told the AP.
The Rutgers scientists have also responded to the environmentalists’ claim that the seismic imaging’s piercing sound would harm marine mammals by stating that the sound could do no such thing and it would be inaudible to humans 1/4 of a mile away.
The research is very necessary, according to the scientists, who have contended that no other coastline on Earth offers a similar opportunity to anticipate its future, or understand its past, in extreme detail from up to 50 million years ago.
A previous project done on the same topic was conducted in 2009 in the same area when scientists drilled half a mile into the seabed and extracted long cores of material which allowed scientists to examine the material itself and the microfossils embedded in it to get an idea of what the Jersey Shore once looked like long ago.
“The cores are valuable,” Mountain said. “They tell you the environment and the age. But they don’t tell you what happened three feet away.”
The Rutgers scientists contend that the seismic imaging will be a much more special and more important type of research because it will give scientists the ability to slice and dice the entire area.
The research was supposed to begin in early June, but that now may be on hold.
The researchers needed permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service to “take” – or harm – up to 26 species of marine mammals, including whales and dolphins.
Harming the marine mammals would not mean injuring or killing them but rather causing a disturbance, such as inducing a whale to change course, stop feeding, or stop communicating with other whales.
To decrease the chances of these disturbances happening, five marine mammal experts will be onboard for rigorous, constant observation, with strict protocols for slowing, or cancelling the operation if certain species are detected.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reversed course, agreeing to a 30-day extension of a public comment period. It is now considering the responses. And the environmentalists aren’t happy.
Among the public commenters, nine environmental groups, including Clean Ocean Action, Save Barnegat Bay, and the Center for Biological Diversity, asked that the permission be denied or, if granted, require that the research not take place during the summer migration and fishing season.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection also voice their opposition to this proposed research. John Gray, acting director of the office of the deputy commissioner for the EPA, said that the entire study area is used by commercial and recreational fishermen.
He contended that it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the seismic surveys would lead to “negative consequences to N.J.’s fishing industries.”
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.