Fears for marine life as drilling gets go ahead off KZN coast

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Sep 19, 2019

Share this article:

Durban - Offshore seismic activity relating to gas and oil exploration could cause whales to beach and have a devastating affect on marine life.

Durban-based environmental activist Janet Solomon’s Oceans Not Oil organisation plans to meet the month-end deadline to appeal against companies being given permission to drill for oil and gas off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, a process that involves noisy seismic activity.

Italian multinational Eni and Sasol have been given permission to do just this.

“The coincidence of stranding and seismic activity has to be questioned,” she told the Independent on Saturday.

Solomon said whale species were just one type of marine creature that would suffer from seismic sounds in the water.

“An enormous amount of marine life relies on sound for survival. They use it for social bonding, finding mates, aggression, finding prey, avoiding predators and navigation.

“It has been shown that these survey sounds can be heard underwater thousands of kilometres from the survey ship. Needless to say, these surveys have some devastating impacts to marine life including soft tissue damage, hearing loss, the bends, disorientation, displacement, migratory diversion and animal stranding.”

She said in spite of the success story of humpback whale population increasing, threats were escalating.

“Seismic surveys are one of them.”

She said the airguns towed behind an oil-and-gas-prospecting seismic survey vessel would detonate with a force powerful enough to penetrate 40km deep into the Earth’s crust, below the sea floor to detect oil reserves.

“These bursts of pressure sound waves are generated every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day and can continue for six months at a time. This high-intensity sound reaches 230 decibels or more, comparable to the sound of a space shuttle launch. To give context, in South Africa, the labour law does not allow employees to work in noise levels over more than 85dBA (150dBA equivalent in water),” she said.

KZN Wildlife Ezemvelo marine ecologist Jennifer Olbers said a stranded whale could drain millions from the budgets of already-stretched public entities and, since the 1986 moratorium on whaling, there were many more whales around.

“The hiring of machinery and disposing of the carcass at a landfill are among the costs involved in dealing with a 12m-15m whale. They are very difficult to drag back into the sea.”

She doubted the coastal municipalities would have the capacity, or staff, to deal with a whale coming ashore.

Olbers said Ezemvelo, which is battling financially, would be delegated to deal with stranded animals.

“The Department of Environmental Affairs don’t fund strandings in this province and the Department of Mineral Resources may have a response plan. That’s all very well but if there’s no money, how do we respond?

“Ezemvelo is not ready for oil-injured animals.”

Then there’s the threat of oil spills, aggravated by the Agulhas Current running at an average of nine knots.

“All emergency equipment for any kind of accidental discharge is at Saldanha Bay,” said Solomon.

“At the very best it would take two to three days to get the equipment here. That’s a real concern,” she said.

She also said pollution containing heavy metals - sometimes highly toxic and radioactive - could easily fall into the sea at drilling operations.

Then there are constitutional and procedural issues Oceans Not Oils will raise in its appeal.

“There is grave concern about oil and gas being placed under the Department of Minerals and Petroleum Agency SA - both become the judge and the jury in this process.

“The DEA should be overseeing this but at no stage did the DEA get involved until right at the end.”

Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance said his organisation, like others, would contest Environmental Impact Assessment statements that had been submitted.

He also said any of the drilling - part of Operation Phakisa to unlock the ocean’s economic potential - would be in conflict with South Africa trying to reduce its carbon footprint in line with the Paris Accord.

“They committed to move away from fossil fuels,” he said, calling the government’s wanting to go ahead with drilling an act of “lying and deceiving”.

He also said in the climate change era of “nature fighting back”, drilling operations could causing spills that would affect the livelihood of many coastal fishing people.

The Oceanographic Research Institute spokesperson Ann Kunz said that over the next two weeks, scientists would be considering their response.

Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa said it too was considering the an appeal

Guidelines for public comment can be found on https://oceansnotoil.org/

The Independent on Saturday

Share this article: