CAPE MAY — Every year, 65,000 people get aboard Capt. Jeff Stewart’s whale-watching boat.
Now, he says, his business may be in jeopardy as plans for seismic testing along the Atlantic Coast inch closer.
“Seismic testing will affect the whales and dolphins, along with the fish they eat,” said Stewart, of Cape May Whale Watchers. “They’ll have to leave the area and go somewhere else. It’ll be a detriment to the tourism industry.”
The widespread opposition along the Jersey Shore to planned seismic testing brought together more than 100 residents, local officials, high school students and even some inflatable dolphins at a rally outside the Cape May Convention Hall.
The protest comes after the Trump administration last year issued five authorizations to advance permit applications for air gun blasting from Delaware to Florida. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will soon rule on the applications, which would allow oil and gas companies to shoot sound waves into the water every 10 to 15 seconds to locate deposits under the seafloor.
“Our beaches, we can’t afford to lose them. This is our lifeblood down here,” Assemblyman Bruce Land, D-Cumberland, told a crowd with waves crashing in the Atlantic Ocean behind him.
In New Jersey, there’s been pushback from environmentalists and both political parties who say the testing — a precursor to oil drilling — would harm marine mammals and the state’s multi-billion dollar fishing industry.
In Cape May alone, commercial fishing was worth about $85 million in 2017.
The sound waves from seismic testing can travel thousands of miles under water, environmental groups say. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has said vessels are required to alert operators if a “protected species” swims within a certain distance of the testing area.
Still, some scientists and environmentalists are worried the blasts will cause fish populations to scatter and create disorientation in mammals, said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action.
A 2017 study found that seismic testing increased the mortality of zooplankton off southern Tasmania.
“If you’re a scallop or marine mammal that’s in the pathway of that, it’s incredibly harmful,” Zipf said.
The last time seismic testing was done off New Jersey’s shoreline was 2015, when Rutgers University used blasts of air to study sediment on the ocean floor near Long Beach Island.
A state law passed in 2018 prohibits natural gas exploration, development and production in New Jersey’s waters, three miles off the coast.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, announced he helped introduce a bill to ban offshore drilling along the entire East and West coasts.
He’s also sponsoring legislation to forbid seismic tests in U.S. waters. Both are pending in Congress and would require a signature from President Donald Trump.
New Jersey has joined eight other Northeast states in suing the Trump administration over its seismic testing plans, alleging the government has violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.
“This is not an anti-Trump thing. It’s not an anti-Republican thing. It is just pro-business, pro-environment, pro-oceans,” Van Drew said.
“(Seismic testing is) unbelievably devastating,” he said. “More than you can imagine.”