Enviro Monday: The seismic survey controversy – what you need to know

These concerns generally relate to the potential impacts of the seismic surveys on the marine environment, particularly their effect on marine mammals, marine life in general and the fishing industry.

Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) issued an exploration permit to Sungu Sungu Oil in 2016 for a three-month long seismic survey from Knysna to Jeffrey’s Bay.

PASA, the regulatory agency for upstream petroleum in South Africa, says it recognises that the marine environment is a vital component of the global ecosystem and it is their duty to ensure that any exploration and exploitation of petroleum resources is carried out in an environmentally responsible manner and in line with environmental regulatory requirements.

What is a seismic survey?

Seismic surveying is a technique used worldwide to search for oil and gas.

Sophisticated 3-D imaging creates high-definition pictures of subsurface geology to determine the location and size of possible oil and gas reservoirs. Sound waves are bounced off underground rock formations and the waves that reflect back to the surface are captured by recording sensors for later analysis.

Measures for minimizing the impact on marine animals

Ocean noise pollution has become an increasingly controversial and studied topic in recent years.

Both ocean researchers and the public have become concerned about ways that sounds created by the airguns may impact ocean creatures.

Seismic surveys are highly regulated, and surveyors have to follow strict guidelines to protect marine life.

PASA recognises the potential environmental impacts that come with seismic surveys ranging from:

  • Biological effects on marine mammals i.e. physical or physiological effects (hearing threshold shifts, auditory damage)
  • Behavioural disruption (fright, changes in behaviour and vocalisation)
  • Disruption to the fishing industry due to obligatory safety zones around the vessel and survey gear

From the regulatory perspective, the following best practices to address potential impacts are mandatory:

  • No exploration and exploitation of oil and gas offshore is carried out without the necessary permits.
  • Before a permit is granted the development of an Environmental Management Programme (EMPR) should be in place. This requires an in-depth assessment and evaluation of the potential impacts of proposed activities on the surrounding environment in order to put appropriate mitigation measures in place.
  • Continuous notification is required during the seismic survey.
  • No seismic surveys are allowed within protected areas i.e. Marine Protected Areas, Nature Reserves, breeding colonies, etc. Buffer zones around these sensitive areas are required based on the assessment carried out.
  • No seismic surveys may take place when the migration of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) is at its peak.
  • Any non-compliance with the requirements of the approved EMPR, is a serious violation in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 (Act No. 28 of 2002) and may lead to various actions being invoked.
  • PASA undertakes to continue monitoring activities to ensure that exploitation of oil and gas is carried out in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner.

WATCH: How 3D seismic surveys are performed

WATCH: International measures in place to protect marine life


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