The introduction of anthropogenic sounds into the marine environment can impact some marine mammals. Impacts can be greatly reduced if appropriate mitigation measures and monitoring are implemented. This paper concerns such measures undertaken by Exxon Neftegas Limited, as operator of the Sakhalin-1 Consortium, during the Odoptu 3-D seismic survey conducted during 17 August’ September 2001. The key environmental issue was protection of the critically endangered western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), which feeds in summer and fall primarily in the Piltun feeding area off northeast Sakhalin Island. Existing mitigation and monitoring practices for seismic surveys in other jurisdictions were evaluated to identify best practices for reducing impacts on feeding activity by western gray whales. Two buffer zones were established to protect whales from physical injury or undue disturbance during feeding. A 1 km buffer protected all whales from exposure to levels of sound energy potentially capable of producing physical injury. A 4’ km buffer was established to avoid displacing western gray whales from feeding areas. Trained Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) on the seismic ship Nordic Explorer had the authority to shut down the air guns if whales were sighted within these buffers.
Additional mitigation measures were also incorporated: Temporal mitigation was provided by rescheduling the program from June–August to August–September to avoid interference with spring arrival of migrating gray whales. The survey area was reduced by 19% to avoid certain waters <20 m deep where feeding whales concentrated and where seismic acquisition was a lower priority. The number of air guns and total volume of the air guns were reduced by about half (from 28 to 14 air guns and from 3,390 in3 to 1,640 in3) relative to initial plans. ‘Ramp-up’(=‘soft-start’ procedures were implemented.
Monitoring activities were conducted as needed to implement some mitigation measures, and to assess residual impacts. Aerial and vessel-based surveys determined the distribution of whales before, during and after the seismic survey. Daily aerial reconnaissance helped verify whale-free areas and select the sequence of seismic lines to be surveyed. A scout vessel with MMOs aboard was positioned 4 km shoreward of the active seismic vessel to provide better visual coverage of the 4’ km buffer and to help define the inshore edge of the 4’ km buffer. A second scout vessel remained near the seismic vessel. Shore-based observers determined whale numbers, distribution, and behavior during and after the seismic survey. Acoustic monitoring documented received sound levels near and in the main whale feeding area.
Statistical analyses of aerial survey data indicated that about 5’0 gray whales moved away from waters near (inshore of) the seismic survey during seismic operations. They shifted into the core gray whale feeding area farther south, and the proportion of gray whales observed feeding did not change over the study period.
Five shutdowns of the air guns were invoked for gray whales seen within or near the buffer. A previously unknown gray whale feeding area (the Offshore feeding area) was discovered south and offshore from the nearshore Piltun feeding area. The Offshore area has subsequently been shown to be used by feeding gray whales during several years when no anthropogenic activity occurred near the Piltun feeding area.
Shore-based counts indicated that whales continued to feed inshore of the Odoptu block throughout the seismic survey, with no significant correlation between gray whale abundance and seismic activity. Average values of most behavioral parameters were similar to those without seismic surveys. Univariate analysis showed no correlation between seismic sound levels and any behavioral parameter. Multiple regression analyses indicated that, after allowance for environmental covariates, 5 of 11 behavioral parameters were statistically correlated with estimated seismic survey-related variables; 6 of 11 behavioral parameters were not statistically correlated with seismic survey-related variables. Behavioral parameters that were correlated with seismic variables were transient and within the range of variation attributable to environmental effects.
Acoustic monitoring determined that the 4’ km buffer zone, in conjunction with reduction of the air gun array to 14 guns and 1,640 in3, was effective in limiting sound exposure. Within the Piltun feeding area, these mitigation measures were designed to insure that western gray whales were not exposed to received levels exceeding the 163 dB re 1 μPa (rms) threshold.
This was among the most complex and intensive mitigation programs ever conducted for any marine mammal. It provided valuable new information about underwater sounds and gray whale responses during a nearshore seismic program that will be useful in planning future work. Overall, the efforts in 2001 were successful in reducing impacts to levels tolerable by western gray whales. Research in 2002’005 suggested no biologically significant or population-level impacts of the 2001 seismic survey.