Intense legal proceedings in the Grahamstown High Court during an urgent interdict to postpone Shell’s 3D seismic survey along the Wild Coast have environmentalists on sharper tenterhooks than ever before.
On Wednesday, acting Judge Avinash Govindjee heard from Shell’s legal representative that the effects of the survey had been “exaggerated” by the four applicants pursuing the matter, and that “any suggestion of prejudice to marine life” was sufficient to justify an interdict of this kind.
This, Shell argued, despite seismic surveys being “routinely conducted” locally and globally.
But there are arguments to be made in favour of what applicants Natural Justice, Greenpeace Africa, Border Deep Sea Angling Association and Kei Mouth Ski Boat Club are trying to emphasise.
Are seismic surveys bad?
Over the next four to five months, Shell plans to blast seismic airgun arrays in water depths of between 700m and 3,000m.
Airguns produce loud, repetitive blasts as often as every 10 seconds. Pressurised air blasts propel through the ocean, into the seafloor, to look for fuel sources.
A number of surveys conducted in the Atlantic ocean in North America found the noise from airguns could disturb, injure or kill marine animals – from zooplankton to large whales.
Oceana reports this fact has been conceded by the US government, which allows over five million seismic airgun blasts every year.
Not only are endangered species such as sea turtles and the North Atlantic right whale affected, but the blasts also affect hundreds of species of fish and shellfish, which sustain marine life and fishing industries.
How will the Wild Coast be impacted?
South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) conservation strategist Judy Mann explained that should oil or gas be found during Shell’s seismic survey, exploratory drilling would then take place, followed by extraction.
Mann argues that South Africa, and the world, must move away from fossil fuels. Concerns over the survey are just the beginning.
The area Shell will cover is around 6,011km², between Port St Johns and Morgans Bay along the east coast.
There are four marine protected areas (MPAs) adjacent to the survey area – Amathole Offshore, Dwesa-Cweba, Hluleka and Pondoland.
MPAs are underwater protection zones for areas with high numbers of endemic species, but the survey could impact them negatively.
The coastal waters Shearwater GeoServices will be conducting the survey in are home to a variety of algae, invertebrates, fish, sea birds and marine mammals.
This area is also influenced by the Agulhas Current, one of the most powerful oceanic currents in the world. Over 75 million cubic metres of water per second flows through this meandering current that measures up to 100km in width.
Any accidental spills, such as oil spills, are virtually impossible to contain. Should oil or gas reserves be found in this area, the potential impact has not yet been considered, Mann explained.
What about fishing communities?
The Wild Coast is one of the most pristine coastlines in the world, and therefore a hub for eco-tourism.
This has long created a number of jobs, attracted tourists, including for the annual sardine run, and has sustained a number of fishermen.
The court interdict’s applicants said on Wednesday only one out of seven affected parties were engaged in discussions regarding the survey.
This, compounded with Oceana’s reporting that seismic surveys could impact fish catch rates, has made local fishing parties understandably anxious.
This was also raised by the Amadiba Crisis Committee in a statement to Shell, who said the survey was “also a threat against the livelihood of communities… that use the riches of the sea to put food on the table and to get an income.”
Amadiba also pointed out the sea represented a significant part of indigenous people’s “spiritual life”, which is also under threat, especially if gas or oil reserves are found.
Petroleum Agency SA says not to worry
During an interview on Cape Talk with John Maytham earlier this week, Petroleum Agency SA CEO Dr Phindile Masangane said the predicted impact on marine life during the survey “can be fully mitigated”.
She said before sound is released, there is an hour-long “pre-watch” where a softer sound is released, in the hopes that “marine mammals… swim away from the area where the sound will be released”.
Masangane said biologists who are familiar with marine species in the area will be aboard the seismic survey vessels, and assured that “these species have learnt to swim away from any strange sources of sound.”
She also said the “exclusion zone” in which the survey is done covers “a radius of 500m”.
There are also reportedly independent environmentalists aboard the vessels who act as “observers” to ensure protocols are observed to mitigate all potential impacts.
“We had exactly the same survey in 2019.”
Shell’s survey began on Wednesday. Judgment concerning the urgent interdict in court will be heard on Friday.