South Africa

groundup WILD COAST

Marine science experts prepare for new court hearing over Shell seismic survey

Protesters in Muizenberg, Cape Town, call for Shell’s seismic survey on the Wild Coast to be stopped. (Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Environmentalists and community groups have assembled a core of oceanic specialists ahead of Friday’s hearing. 

Environmentalists and community groups have assembled an army of international and local marine science experts in their legal battle to stop Shell’s five-month seismic survey — part of its oil and gas exploration campaign — off the Eastern Cape coast.

The urgent matter has been set down for hearing in the Makhanda high court on Friday 17 December.

Shell is opposing the application but has yet to file its papers, which is also likely to include reports and affidavits from experts.

Earlier this month, a similar application for an interdict was dismissed with costs.

Makhanda high court Acting Judge Avinash Govindjee ruled that submissions about the detrimental impact of the survey on the environment and marine life were “speculative at best” and the applicants had not proved a reasonable apprehension of irreparable harm.

In the coming court challenge, Reinford Sinegugu Zukulu, director of Sustaining the Wild Coast, and representatives of Wild Coast communities have asked the court to allow them to admit affidavits of several experts which, they say, prove that the air gun barrage, “which would be blasted into the sea every ten seconds for five months, louder than a jet plane taking off,” would “likely cause significant harm to marine animals”.

Most of the experts cited in the papers agree that Shell’s 2013 Environmental Management Programme (EMPr), which gave details of the seismic survey and proposed mitigating measures, was completely outdated.

US-based Dr Douglas Nowacek, an expert in behavioural and acoustic ecology with marine mammals, says in his affidavit that evidence gathered since 2013 shows that exposure to unwanted sound causes behavioural and physiological harm to marine mammals, including “chronic stress” particularly worrying for the endangered populations of whales off the Wild Coast.

“Noise will be felt by cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) over large areas of ocean. It can induce a physiological stress response, disrupt biological essential behaviour such as vocalising, foraging, and masking acoustic communication including communication between mothers and calves,” he said.

“While the EMPr found that impacts ranged from negligible to low, these findings are now contradicted by recent scientific literature on the impacts on species such as zooplankton, endangered African penguins and acoustically sensitive beaked whales.”

He said proposed mitigation measures would be ineffective.

Marine scientists Drs Jean Harris, Jennifer Olbers and Kendyl Wright, in their submission, concluded that there would most likely be significant direct harm to individual animals and endangered species.

Lynton Burger founded and was managing director until 2004 of Environmental Resource Management Southern Africa, the company that prepared the 2013 EMPr. He alleges that the people who prepared the report appeared to lack any professional marine science or marine environmental training.

“The 2013 report is out of date. It is not industry best practice for consultants to stand by such an old EMPr … the mitigation measures are inadequate because they focus on outdated potential impacts,” he said.

The public consultation with interested and affected parties, which was already limited because a full environmental impact assessment was not conducted, was also outdated, Burger said.

Burger says the mitigation measures proposed by Shell were inadequate because they were heavily reliant on supposedly independent onboard observers, “that is junior level observers,” whose ability to detect cetaceans would be severely limited to fleeting surface appearances. He says there are no plans for mitigation during the night.

Most importantly, he says, the full impact on plankton, the building blocks of ocean ecosystems, cannot be monitored or mitigated by onboard observers.

David Russell, a Namibia-based fisheries consultant, said he had followed Shell’s seismic surveys for many years.

He said during one seismic survey off the seas of Namibia, which began in 2012, there was a “sudden drop in catches” that had a devastating economic impact on the albacore tuna industry.

He said Shell should communicate with the small sea fishers whose livelihood could be significantly impacted if the fish left due to seismic survey noise.

Dr Alexander Claus Winkler, an inshore fisheries expert, said updated literature, technological advances and growing global concern around the subtle indirect effects of noise pollution on marine ecosystems revealed severe shortcomings in the EMPr.

The two legal bases of the application for the interdict are that there was a lack of meaningful consultation in the process, and that Shell had obtained its permit under the Mineral and Petroleum Resource Act and did not have environmental authorisation under the more stringent National Environment Management Act. DM

First published by GroundUp.

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All Comments 7

  • If Shell’s studies are outdated they should be had up for fraud. clearly the judge erred in his consideration of this fact assuming those bringing the case up on Friday can make their point better than the last lot!

  • For God’s (or Allah if you prefer) sake, we, citizens of the world, have to fight this one. A mad man, a politician, who knows absolutely zero about preservation of the planet, or don’t even care, accusing each and every single human being on this precious planet of being apartheid activists, or whatever. So that he and a company called British Petroleum, part of the British 3rd Reich, can leave a country in shame for generations to come, and beyond. How I hate that man! How I hate everything he stands for! How I hate what he is doing! How I hate to know that he has power bestowed to him by a non caring so-called government with little if any respect for future generations of all species, humans, fish, animals. Will there indeed be any future for mankind, and those who share the planet with us, if we allow this mad human being and his company to go ahead with this destruction of life?

  • Does anyone know the strength of the air gun being used for this survey? If it is more powerful than previous devices then there is an urgent need to relook at possible consequences. My understanding is that whales communicate over vast distances and I would like to know if this type of survey will damage such inter whale communication and indeed the whales themselves.

  • Please can we hear about how the local community will benefit from the resources – if they are discovered.
    I drive through that area regularly, and the people there are poor. I don’t consider it unfair that people opposing the exploration live in modern cities with related infrastructure – that all disrupted the original environment – roads, hospitals, universities, ports etc…
    Modern cities can live in conjunction with nature, but will disrupt them. Yes, the benefits of the resources need to be shared with the local population… but I support progress here for the poor people of the Transkei… and if Shell is a catalyst to improving their lives and earn some money in the process then good luck to them.

      • Really, unfair or fair, the comment stays. And if you think British Petroleum will make any difference to people living in the area, well, then you are simply believing that the Gupta’s would have made any difference to the people living in Estina. You think that people living in the wild coast care about BP/Shell, or for that matter the whole of the darn British empire, or this project. They simply lives for the next day. Wake up man, BP/Shell cares a f..k about the people, its a commercial venture in partnership with the minister of mining

    • Dear Mr Woods, I respect your concern. There is a problem of poverty. However, the root of the problem should be discussed with the people affected, the range of potential solutions and their costs/benefits discussed and solutions selected, not an unquestioning jump that an oil/gas industry is the solution.