Shell blasted: Public outrage mounting over seismic survey on Wild Coast

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Fish and other marine creatures may die when Shearwater GeoServices uses a high-powered airgun to blast the sea floor every 10 seconds.  (Photo by Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Fish and other marine creatures may die when Shearwater GeoServices uses a high-powered airgun to blast the sea floor every 10 seconds. (Photo by Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
  • Shell will start blasting the seafloor along the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape in search of oil and gas.
  • The move has sparked public outrage, and efforts are underway to block the energy company's exploration. 
  • Many countries across the world have banned the seismic surveys over their negative impact on marine life.  

Environmentalists, businesses and local residents in the Eastern Cape are up in arms after energy giant Shell announced it will begin blasting the seafloor on the unspoilt Wild Coast - from Morgan Bay outside East London all the way to Port St Johns - in search of gas and oil deposits.

Shell has appointed the Norwegian company, Shearwater GeoServices, to conduct a three-dimensional (3D) offshore seismic survey from Morgan Bay to Port St Johns, to map potential deposits of oil and gas under the seabed, which has triggered public outrage.

Shell Exploration and Production South Africa said it anticipated that the seismic survey would take four to five months to complete, depending on weather and current conditions.

The survey area is more than 20km from the coast at its closest point, with water depths ranging from 700m to 3 000m, and it covers 6 011 square kilometres.

READ MORE | SA fuel company cuts all ties with Shell over seismic survey

Fish and other marine creatures, including endangered species, may die when Shearwater GeoServices uses a high-powered airgun to blast the sea floor every 10 seconds. 

The sound waves can reportedly penetrate more than 1 000m into the earth. 

Environmental groups have raised concerns that the sea life - including whales, dolphins, sharks, penguins, crabs - will be affected by the blasts.

The East London Museum's principal scientist Kevin Cole warned that the effects of the survey could be detrimental.

Cole told News24:

We have very little science on the true effect the seismic surveys will have in the proposed survey areas. The implications on all marine life from the smallest crustaceans, squid, mesopelagic fish through to the larger marine mammals like dolphins and whales is that there could be a disruption to ecosystem function. Considering the high biodiversity of this part of SA’s oceans and the dynamic oceanographic environment seismic surveys will pose too high a risk.

Calls have since been mounting for South Africans to boycott all Shell filling stations across the country.

By Saturday, an online petition had garnered more than 298 200 signatures, demanding the government withdraw Shell’s permission for the project, while local fishing communities and environmental groups are planning further protest actions.

Efforts to block Shells' plans, have also reached President Cyril Ramaphosa's desk, with some of the largest business groups in the Eastern Cape writing directly to the president to intervene.

In a three-paged letter, the 500-member Border-Kei Chamber of Business told Ramaphosa, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe and Environment Minister Babara Creecy that the type of seismic surveying planned for the coastline created acoustic pollution in the ocean, and that its full impact was not yet fully understood.

It added that many countries had banned these seismic surveys, citing a negative impact on whales, other marine species, and commercial fisheries.

The business group also expressed concerns that the noise had been found to disrupt behavioural patterns of whales, which is essential for their livelihood and breeding patterns (where noise levels cancel out communication to find food and to hear mating calls).

BKBC director Lizelle Maurice said:

The Border-Kei Chamber of Business is registering its firm objection to seismic exploration off our coastline, until further research is undertaken on the impact of seismic surveys in our waters and that confirmation be received that such activity will not cause environmental damage.

The group also said this type of testing had seen commercial fishing levels decrease.

It added that tourism would also be affected, as East London was well known for whale and dolphin activities during certain times of the year. 

Maurice added:

There is also concern about the timing of this testing which will take place in the survey block during the loggerhead (another endangered species) migration period. Non-migratory whales may also be affected, such as the deep diving beaked whales (Cuvier’s and True’s) which are known to occur in these waters. The semi-migratory Bryde’s whale is also present all year round.

ALSO READFish die-off in Eastern Cape 'triggered by global warming'

According to the business chamber, Norway had noted that negatively affected individuals had actually requested compensation from the state for resultant losses in income. 

It added that these seismic surveys, utilising air guns, had been shown to cause damage to body tissue and could cause temporary to permanent hearing loss. 

The chamber added that some physiological defects had been attributed to this type of technology as well. 

East Londoner Siseko Yelani, who grew up hiking in the lush forests spilling onto pristine beaches on the Wild Coast, was outraged by Shell's plan, saying the company would only spoil the natural beauty of the coast.

Yelani added:

On our trips to the Wildcoast over the years we left behind only footprints, great smiles and the locals asking us to come back for more. We left minimal impact on the environment. It is no doubt that Shell will only leave behind total destruction of this natural beauty, already locals are not happy with the gas and oil exploration at the expense of our nature. Go away Shell.

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment said the decision on the survey was final and binding until set aside by a court of law.

It said the survey had been authorised under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 2002 (Act No. 28 of 2002), (MRPDA) which under Section 39(2) of the Act requires the submission of an environmental management plan which is to assess and evaluate the environmental impacts of the activity.

The department said the minister of mineral resources and energy was responsible for administering the Act. It added that the minister responsible for environmental affairs was not mandated to consider the application or decide on authorising the seismic survey.

"It should be noted that, since the coming into effect of the One Environment System on 8 December 2014, the application process for the seismic surveys was finalised. All decisions made under the MPRDA at the time remain valid and binding until set aside by a court of law,” said DFFE in a statement. 

Acting presidential spokesperson Tyrone Seale said the energy and environmental department was handling the matter. 

Energy department spokesperson Thandiwe Maimane could not immediately be reached for comment. Her response will be added once received. 

Shell’s South African consultant Eloise Costandius also did not respond to our questions and their response will be added once received. 

We want to hear your views on the news. Subscribe to News24 to be part of the conversation in the comments section of this article. 

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