THERE needs to be much tighter with monitoring of the burgeoning oil and gas exploration industry off KwaZulu-Natal’s coast, as the sonic equipment used damages the marine environment, experts say. Last week the government-run Petroleum Agency of South Africa lifted a one-day halt of a seismic survey, from Jeffrey’s Bay to the Wild Coast, by New African Global Energy, after the oil company agreed to modify its exploration methods, so as not to affect whales’ movements along the coast. In Namibia a government task team recommended limiting the use of airgun survey equipment, as it believes the equipment has affected tuna migration. ExxonMobil recently called for public comments on its plans to explore for oil and gas in the Deepwater Durban Exploration Area, which is 60 to 380 km offshore of KwaZulu-Natal. The company must send an environmental management programme to the government before an exploration licence is granted. CGG Services SA also recently applied to explore for oil and gas in a number of licence blocks in the Durban Basin, while Sasol announced it had been granted a three-year permit to look for oil and gas offshore of KwaZulu-Natal. “I have dozens of research papers in our library. There is no doubt it [the use of airgun seismic survey equipment] affects cetaceans … The government is handing out these licences left, right and centre. I want to call for a panel of experts to examine these proposals,” said Nan Rice, Dolphin Action and Protection Group chairperson. The international environment organisation Oceana has warned on its website that marine life and coastal economies are threatened by seismic airguns, “The United States government itself estimates that the use of seismic airguns … will injure and possibly kill 138 500 whales and dolphins, and disturb necessary activities for millions more.” But ExxonMobil E&P South Africa spokesperson Zakithi Zama said the sound produced during seismic surveys is comparable to many naturally occurring and other human ocean noises. “Survey operations are normally conducted at 4,5-5 knots. As a result, the sound from the seismic source, which is typically activated every 10-15 seconds, does not last long in any one location and is not at full volume 24 hours a day,” Zama said. Oceana said the airguns disturbs the behaviour of fish, dolphins, whales and sea turtles, causing temporary and permanent hearing loss, driving animals from their homes, disrupting mating and causing animals to become stranded on beaches. ExxonMobil said using airguns for seismic mapping had been done successfully for decades. Some of the measures it proposed to minimise the environmental impact includes avoiding sensitive periods for marine animals, delaying the firing of airguns if marine animals are too close and using acoustic monitoring at night and times of poor visibility.