Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Look into the World of a Marine Mammal Scientist; in the Land of Rigs, Ships, and Conservation

Helicopter Landing; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

Before I begin to tell you about the projects that I have worked offshore in this next chapter; we must first go back to the beginning. As you have seen from my past project in Boston, Massachusetts – “Thanks for the Memories; My Recollections of the Boston, Massachusetts Project,” the role of a Marine Mammal Scientist is quite diverse. 

Oil Rig; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008

When I started working in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), I had begun to implement specific guidelines, as well as fulfill various roles. Though there were no documented North Atlantic right whales in the GOM, there were several distinct specimens that were new to me and very popular within these waters. For instance, before this project I had learned that one of the most important and endangered species that were found within the GOM were Sperm whales.  I did not know much about Sperm whales at the time, but I was soon able to find out a great deal about them working in their natural environment. I was not working with Commercial Scuba Divers on a pipeline project this time; however, I was working with the Oil & Gas Industry on what is worldly recognized as a seismic survey. I had no idea what seismic surveys were, but I was about to find out firsthand what this entitled. What are seismic surveys you may ask? I discovered that seismic surveys were carried out principally for the purposes exploration and the management of hydrocarbon reserves. To further understand the Oil & Gas Industry and their responsibilities offshore, we must first understand the environmental consultants behind them – this will allow us to gain a deeper understanding in their roles to the environment.

Main Role of a Marine Mammal Scientist:

Whether we are working in the GOM or worldwide there is one mission that we stay focused on - we are professional environmental consultants and as scientists our duty is to carefully examine the waters looking for whales, other marine mammals, and sea turtles using the naked eye and hand-held binoculars provided by the seismic vessel operator and/or our own. The Marine Mammal Scientists will stand watch in a suitable location that will not interfere with navigation or operation of the vessel - this affords the observers an optimal view of the sea surface. The biologists will provide 360 degree coverage surrounding the seismic vessel. This 360 degree presents the opportunity to adjust their positions appropriately to ensure adequate coverage of the entire area. These observations must be consistent, diligent, and free of distractions for the duration of the “watch.”

Helicopter and Oil Rig at Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

In recent years there has been increased concern for the effect of man-made noise pollution in the ocean, particularly upon cetaceans - which are known to be sensitive to sound. As a result, environmental regulations have been introduced in an attempt to minimize negative impacts on marine wildlife. These guidelines have focused on the Oil & Gas Industry's seismic exploration for offshore oil - they center on the practice of delaying or shutting down the use of airguns if a whale or dolphin is sighted nearby. A Marine Mammal Scientist will implement these regulations in the field.

When onboard the seismic vessel, the Marine Mammal Scientist job is two-fold:

    * To spot sensitive wildlife species
    * To ensure adherence to the guidelines

Spotting, and identifying, animals involves long hours of visual surveys. Detecting cetaceans with hydrophones is known as Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM), and this is an increasingly common technique used in addition to visual surveys. Ensuring adherence to guidelines requires a thorough knowledge of the regulations, understanding of the operations, and the ability to communicate effectively with the crew.  In some circumstances guidelines may be open to interpretation or the environmental conditions unique and the Marine Mammal Scientist will be called upon to give advice on a sensible mitigation protocol.

As well as the seismic exploration industry, Marine Mammal Scientists may also be required during; oil rig decommissioning, where disused oil platform pilings on the seabed are removed by large amounts of explosives, marine construction projects and; military trials of powerful new active sonar systems. 

Golden Oil Rig; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008

Noise from human activity in the ocean environment is likely to increase - and become a bigger environmental issue. Discussion of how to minimize the negative effects of noise upon whales, dolphins, and other marine-life will no doubt continue between industry, government agencies, military, environmental organizations and academics. It will be the Marine Mammal Scientist who puts this into practice in the field.

Seismic Survey Boat; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

Shut-down Protocol for the Quest of Sperm Whales:

In the GOM according to the NTL guidelines, at any time a whale is observed within an estimated 500 meters (1,640 feet) of the sound source array (“exclusion zone”), whether due to the whale’s movement, the vessel’s movement, or because the whale surfaced inside the exclusion zone, the observer will call for the immediate shut-down of the seismic operation, including airgun firing (the vessel may continue on its course but all airgun discharges must cease).

The vessel operator must comply immediately with such a call by an on-watch visual observer. Any disagreement or discussion should occur only after shut- down. When no marine mammals or sea turtles are sighted for at least a 30-minute period, ramp- up of the source array may begin. Ramp-up cannot begin unless conditions allow the sea surface to be visually inspected for marine mammals and sea turtles for 30 minutes prior to commencement of ramp-up (unless the method described in the section entitled “Experimental Passive Acoustic Monitoring” is used). Thus, ramp-up cannot begin after dark or in conditions that prohibit visual inspection (fog, rain, etc.) of the exclusion zone. 

Oil Rig after Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008

Any shut-down due to a whale(s) sighting within the exclusion zone must be followed by a 30-minute all-clear period and then a standard, full ramp-up. Any shut-down for other reasons, including, but not limited to, mechanical or electronic failure, resulting in the cessation of the sound source for a period greater than 20 minutes, must also be followed by full ramp-up procedures. In recognition of occasional, short periods of the cessation of airgun firing for a variety of reasons, periods of airgun silence not exceeding 20 minutes in duration will not require ramp-up for the resumption of seismic operations if: (1) visual surveys are continued diligently throughout the silent period (requiring daylight and reasonable sighting conditions), and (2) no whales, other marine mammals, or sea turtles are observed in the exclusion zone. If whales, other marine mammals, or sea turtles are observed in the exclusion zone during the short silent period, resumption of seismic survey operations must be preceded by ramp-up.

Visual Monitoring Enforcing Guidelines:

Visual monitoring will begin no less than 30 minutes prior to the beginning of ramp-up and continue until seismic operations cease or sighting conditions do not allow observation of the sea surface (e.g., fog, rain, darkness). If a marine mammal or sea turtle is observed, the observer should note and monitor the position (including lat./long. of vessel and relative bearing and estimated distance to the animal) until the animal dives or moves out of visual range of the observer. Make sure you continue to observe for additional animals that may surface in the area, as often there are numerous animals that may surface at varying time intervals

In other words, my position in the GOM was the governing body responsible for implementing mitigation measures to protect marine mammals and turtles during seismic survey operations within the Gulf of Mexico. The NTL guidelines were enforced by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Services). The role of the Marine Mammal Scientist is to be present on the ships during offshore operations and to act immediately to protect marine mammals should they enter an exclusion zone (usually 500 meters) prior to operations. Marine Mammal Scientists will advise personnel onboard to delay operations until the animals are at a safe distance and also to record behavior and sightings at other times.

Crane at Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

The Effect of Passive Acoustic Monitoring:

The Marine Mammal Scientist must first be able to detect marine mammals - this is done by visual and passive acoustic monitoring. Visual monitoring is conducted by using the highest platform with the best all-round vision and using simply a pair of binoculars the Marine Mammal Scientist scans the surrounding areas for animals. Visual monitoring is done in all observation work.

In addition passive acoustic monitoring may also be carried out. Marine mammals spend most of their time underwater and for those species that are very vocal and are deep divers such as sperm whales – acoustic monitoring can be conducted as well as visual monitoring to increase the likelihood of detection. Acoustic monitoring also allows for the Marine Mammal Scientist to detect animals at night. Passive Acoustic Monitoring is conducted by deploying hydrophone cables and monitoring in-coming signals on computers with specially designed acoustic software.

Creativity; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

Passive acoustic monitoring is encouraged for both borehole & surface seismic operations.  “Monitoring for sperm whales with a passive acoustic array by an observer proficient in its use will allow ramp-up and the subsequent start of a seismic survey during times of reduced visibility (darkness, fog, rain, etc.) when such ramp-up otherwise would not be permitted using only visual observers.  If you use passive acoustic monitoring, include an assessment of the usefulness, effectiveness, and problems encountered with the use of that method of marine mammal detection in the reports described in this NTL.  A description of the passive acoustic system, the software used, and the monitoring plan should also be reported to MMS at the beginning of its use.”

Not all projects worldwide use PAM; however, with increasingly Oil & Gas companies searching for the valuable resource of oil, PAM will be utilized more frequently.  As the search continues for "liquid gold," additional habitats and marine mammals are being affected.

Seismic Airguns Impact on Marine Wildlife:

Projects requiring Marine Mammal Scientists and Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) Operators have arisen due to concerns regarding the levels of man-made noise in the ocean and how this may affect marine life, in particular, marine mammals and turtles.

The use of an airgun or airgun arrays while conducting seismic operations may have an impact on marine wildlife, including marine mammals and sea turtles. Some marine mammals, such as the Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), and all sea turtles that inhabit the GOM are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

In order to protect marine mammals and sea turtles during seismic operations, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requires seismic operators to use ramp-up and visual observation procedures when conducting seismic surveys. Procedures for ramp-up, protected species observer training, visual monitoring and reporting are described in detail in this NTL. These mitigation measures apply to geophysical activities conducted under lease terms, for all seismic survey operations conducted in waters deeper than 200 meters (656 feet) throughout the GOM and, in the GOM waters east of 88.0° W. longitude, for all seismic survey operations conducted regardless of water depth. Performance of these mitigation measures is also a condition of the approval of applications for geophysical permits. You must demonstrate your compliance with these mitigation measures by submitting to MMS certain reports detailed in this NTL.

Stern at Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

How to Become a Marine Mammal Scientist:

Individuals likely to work on projects as Marine Mammal Scientists are those which have additional biological or environmental qualifications and/or have experience of working at sea. To work in this particular field and in some areas of the UK where marine mammals are more abundant, you will be required to have experience of working with marine mammals whether this is formally as a researcher or through voluntary work.

Marine Mammal Scientist does usually have a strong background in Marine Biology and Conservation. Increasingly, the Oil & Gas Industry is employing a 'best practice' attitude to environmental commitment and voluntarily taking on Marine Mammal Scientists as independent observers in areas where no government regulations exist.