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Study recommends measures to protect whales from oil and gas seismic testing

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HALIFAX - A study by a group of experts including two Canadians is offering recommendations to reduce the impact of seismic surveys by oil and gas companies on vulnerable whales and other marine species.

The research, compiled over a six-year period ending in 2012, outlines a set of guidelines developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company in their seismic testing off Russia's Sakhalin island, just north of Japan.

The survey region is rich in oil and gas deposits, but it's also near the vital feeding grounds of the critically endangered western gray whale, the study said.

Roberto Racca of JASCO Applied Sciences in Victoria said usually testing is halted if whales are seen within an area where they could be physically harmed.

But the measures cited in the study, published in the journal Aquatic Mammal, also accounted for the potential area where a whale's behaviour could be disturbed.

"The region of which a behavioural disturbance can occur is significantly larger than the region where the physical harm would take place," said Racca, who helped author the study.

Whales rely on sound for communication, navigation and foraging and exposure to loud noise from seismic surveys can result in stress, behaviour changes and drive the whales away from their feeding grounds, said Randall Reeves of the Quebec-based Okapi Wildlife Associates.

The recommendations include reducing the survey area, keeping the seismic noises as low as possible and halting operations if whales are too close, he said.

Reeves, another author of the study, said other countries can use look to it but cautioned that it's not a "cookbook."

"This can't be advertised as an inexpensive or quick fix for energy companies," said Reeves, adding that Sakhalin Energy Investment Company had been collecting data about the whales for about a decade before it started seismic testing.

"With different species in different areas ... it's always going to be different in some ways."

Racca said the lessons learned from studying Sakhalin's operations cannot be directly applied to seismic testing in Canada, as there isn't a population of whales in Canadian waters that are bound to specific feeding regions.

"There's never been a situation where the criticality of the population, the state of endangerment, would have warranted something of the order of what is being suggested in the paper," he said.

But proper planning of acoustic modelling, studying the potential harm to whales and establishing mitigation measures should be paramount for oil and gas companies in any country, said Racca.

He added that Ottawa currently doesn't have specific standards regarding seismic testing around whales and oil and gas companies usually look to American regulations for guidance.

The study included authors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States and the Marine Lab at Duke University, as well as from Shell Global Solutions and the International Whaling Commission, the international body that regulates whale hunting.

The federal Fisheries Department recently issued a tender asking the successful bidder to collect data about the behaviour of endangered whales on the Scotian Shelf off Nova Scotia — including North Atlantic right whales and northern bottlenose whales — during and after seismic surveys.

"Given that seismic noise production on the Scotian Shelf near the identified critical habitat of these endangered populations is increasing, technologies and methods designed to help monitor and mitigate the potential impacts of seismic noise on cetaceans will be important," the tender says.

The government is offering up to $50,000 for the work and the deadline is March 31.

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