Ear to the Waves: Assessing Acoustic Energy Impacts

Author: Kelly Keen
Fellow Type: California Sea Grant State Fellow
Year(s) of Fellowship: 2013
Host Agency: California State Lands Commission

While collecting and analyzing field data for a number of years, I became interested in how science was being used to shape policy and management decisions to protect marine and coastal ecosystems, and the California Sea Grant State Fellowship Program provided me with just that opportunity.  As a fellow at the California State Lands Commission (CSLC), I collaborated with scientific experts, stakeholders, and policymakers to make informed science-based decisions on challenging marine and coastal issues, including climate change, sea level rise, aquaculture, marine debris, and marine renewable energy.  Much of my work as a fellow has been carried over into my full-time position as an Environmental Scientist with the CSLC, specifically my focus in the implementation of the Low Energy Offshore Geophysical Permit Program (OGPP or Program).

As a fellow, my main focus was assisting with the review and update of the CSLC’s Low Energy OGPP, where I gained first-hand experience with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) through my contributions to the preparation and review of the OGPP Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND).  Geophysical surveys under the OGPP use acoustic (low) energy to conduct critical ocean bottom exploration for scientific and engineering purposes, including mapping the seafloor for kelp restoration projects and maintaining the structural integrity of underwater pipelines.  Recently, however, there has been increased attention on how anthropogenic, or human-made, sound (like the sounds produced during geophysical surveys) may impact marine wildlife, specifically marine mammals.  With my background in marine mammal behavior and experience in underwater acoustic analysis, my involvement in the update of this Program allowed me to apply the knowledge I had gained from my fieldwork and studies to a real world management issue.

Using the most current scientific knowledge, this environmental document assessed the potential impacts of low energy geophysical surveys on several resource categories (e.g., biological resources, commercial and recreational fisheries, air quality) as a means to develop and implement a revised permitting structure for such activities, and identify feasible mitigation measures to reduce or avoid any impacts found to be potentially significant.  Since the MND’s adoption by the Commission in September 2013, I have been responsible for the implementation of the OGPP and Mitigation Monitoring Program, including writing guidance documents for permittees developing marine wildlife and oil spill contingency plans, and developing a tracking database, in conjunction with spatial mapping tools, to facilitate ongoing monitoring of geophysical surveys.  With permittees beginning to conduct surveys under the new Program, I have been reviewing survey materials for compliance with the OGPP, as well as working with permittees proposing to conduct geophysical surveys within the CSLC’s jurisdiction.  Looking ahead, I am excited to see how the program progresses in the coming months as I prepare a one-year status update to the Commission on the implementation of the OGPP and next steps.

This past year has been an exciting and rewarding experience, and for that I am very grateful — thank you to the California Sea Grant State Fellowship Program and the CSLC for providing me with this wonderful opportunity.

Written by Kelly Keen