We fishermen stopped Big Oil’s seismic blasts in Norway’s fisheries, you can do it too

I am a professional fisherman based on an island (Andøy) in the Lofoten/Vesterålen archipelago in the Arctic part of Norway. We experienced three years — 2007, 2008 and 2009 — of seismic blasts in our fishing grounds. 

Blasting our coast was done by our government and started in June 2007. We tried to prevent it from happening and almost succeeded in 2008 with the help of the media. 

At the time I was the secretary in a local fishermen’s union and tried to gather fishermen together for meetings and protests. But I was met with arguments like “let them blast and get finished”. Nobody believed it was possible to prevent our fishing grounds from oil activities. And fishermen believed that seismic blastings — the most destructive part of oil activities — would take place only as a pre-project. We had a lot to learn and the first lesson came from the leader of the Norwegian Petroleum Directory when she stated: “Seismic surveys are important and more than less c-o-n-t-i-n-o-u-s parts of oil activities.”

When we didn’t succeed in stopping the blasting we collected news from local media that might be connected to the blasts. We also collected our own experiences of the blasts and wrote a simple report to make fishermen and coastal communities aware of the negative consequences of seismic surveys.

After the blasts ended in 2009, our challenge was to keep the issue alive in the media. This year the People’s Action for Oil Free Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja Islands was established and became the new platform for further protests and information sharing in public.

Several Norwegian governments have, since 2009, tried to open our areas for oil exploration, but they failed. From 2019 it has been politically impossible to open our areas to seismic surveys because of a decision taken by the Labour Party in the general assembly.

In 2018, I was invited to Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln in South Australia to support the resistance against Equinor’s oil plans for the Great Australian Bight (GAB). Our simple report became a game changer when it was spread Down Under. During a meeting with the most powerful fishery organisation (the Tuna Association in Port Lincoln) I explained the report’s findings. Until this meeting the Tuna Association had not been negative to Equinor’s plans. Equinor later withdrew from the GAB. This trip was financially supported by the People’s Action and Norges Fiskarlag, the main fishermen’s union in Norway.

The People’s Action’s policy is to support other groups and people struggling with threats of seismic surveys. We believe that sharing information and supporting each other is the key to stopping some of the madness taking place today. When oil companies attack the coastlines they are killing people’s livelihood and killing and scaring our food away from the fishing areas.

We have stopped Big Oil in our area — you can do it there as well.

So, please don’t underestimate our simple report. This is about the realities for coastal communities and fisheries based on our experiences, which is something very different from scientific reports with vague conclusions done by people out of touch with the environment.

The Report: Consequences of seismic surveys in Norway’s fisheries

Fishermen’s experiences and media reports from 2007 to 2010, by the Andøy Fishermen’s Union, 2012.

Seismic explorations for new oil and gas resources are going to escalate in the years to come. Such explorations will move into coastal areas and into the Arctic areas. Oil activities have been going on for more than 40 years in Norway, but these activities have been far away from the coastline — until recently. The Norwegian Petroleum Directory carried out seismic surveys on the fishing grounds off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja (LoVeSe) in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and the coastal fishermen in these areas experienced for the first time what seismic blasts do to the environment and fisheries. When the coastal fishermen reported the negative consequences of seismic surveys to the media, a lot of people and politicians became aware of the damage seismic blasts and the shockwaves do to fisheries and the environment connected to the sea.

It seems the oil industry and the seismic companies knew that public insight into their activities would damage their reputation, public acceptance and business.

Experiences from seismic blasts in LoVeSe show that consequences are strongly underrated, perhaps partly because they damage an environment that is not visible. But the enormous shockwaves hit life under the sea’s surface hard and consequences may after some time also be noticed in other environments connected to the sea.

This report is partly based on the coastal fishermen’s experiences during the blasting years (2007, 2008 and 2009) in the fishing grounds off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja islands (LoVeSe) and negative effects on the environments our coastal communities depend on.

What is a seismic survey?

A seismic vessel tows two or more cables at a length of six to eight kilometres. The seismic air gun arrays behind the vessels are fired every eighth, 10th, 12th or 15th second. Pressure waves from the air guns are able to pass through several hundred of metres of water, shake the seabed, pass through seven to nine kilometres of rock before returning through the rocks and water and still be detected on the surface. The pressure waves spread in all directions.

One of the proven effects of seismic blasts is that the shockwaves affect fish within 18 nautical miles (34km), as documented by the Institute of Marine Research in Norway in 1993. The reason for this limit is that during the surveys there were no ongoing fisheries further away than 18 nautical miles from the air guns. 

The other documented effect is that the pressure from the airguns kill fish close to the cables. There is no evidence of how much biomass, much of which is food for the most important fish species along the coastline, a seismic survey might kill. Fishermen believe that the biomass being killed is large.

1. Fishermen’s experiences in LoVeSe.

Any kind of fishery is based on a certain assumption about the species. For coastal fisheries these assumptions are the routes fish species’ travel for feeding and breeding and the fact that local fish stocks are feeding close to the coastline most of the year. 

The most important coastal fisheries in the northern part of Norway are for haddock, coalfish and cod. The coastal fishermen are fishing haddock and pollack in the summer and cod in winter, and these species are the foundation of businesses and activities in the coastal areas.

When the seismic surveys began in the summer of 2007 all the coalfish and haddock catches were reduced immediately. Only small fish were caught, and fishermen explain that small fish have limited abilities to escape the noise and pressure waves. The big and most valuable fish were scared away. There were reports that big coalfish had entered deep into the fiords inside LoVeSe.

Six weeks after the blastings ended in 2008 and 2009, there were good catches close to Senja island for only two or three days. 

It is likely that coalfish remained in the fiords for those five to six weeks. When the coalfish finally came out of the fiords they were hungry and scared, and escaped into distant areas off Finnmark county and later on into the Barents Sea to find food.

One may assume that fish escaping seismic blasts cannot feed and breeding migrations are disturbed. 

Experienced fishermen believe that seismic blasts kill and sterilise fish and other biomass on a large scale every year. These issues have not yet been confirmed, but we may be quite sure about the fact that the consequences of seismic blasting are far more damaging than the oil industry and the seismic companies admit. 

Trawl and Danish seine fishing

The moment seismic blasting begins trawlers and Danish seine fishing vessels may increase their catches in close-up areas. Our theory is that fish on the run tend to accumulate over a shorter period of time in close-up areas. While fish from other areas start to run away from the pressure waves the density of fish in close-up areas will increase. Fishing vessels using trawl and Danish seine nets have successfully taken advantage of this phenomenon and increased their catches for a day or two close to seismic blasts.

A few days later catches will decrease and there will be no reason for fishing. Fishermen in the North Sea have experienced similar patterns during the past 40 years. 

Net fishing

Fishers using nets have the same experiences as trawl fishing. Just after the blasts start, catches increase for one to two days, and then decrease and fishing is unprofitable.

The owner of a fishing vessel catching catfish told us that catches increased enormously the first two days after blastings began. On the third day there were no fish in the nets and it remained that way until long after the blasts ended. 

Longlines

This fishing method is sensitive to any kind of disturbance. Successfully fishing with longlines depends on fish not being stressed. The fish must stay in the fishing area and must hunt for food to bite the bait. Fish caught on longlines always have the hook in the jaw.

During the seismic blasts in LoVeSe, fishermen experienced 50% to 70 % loss in their catches.

Longliners caught haddock with the hooks fastened in their bellies. This indicates panic among fish trying to escape the pressure waves. 

Jigging

This method is used to catch coalfish outside LoVeSe in the summer (May to October). These fisheries are the most important for the smallest fishing vessels. 

Fishermen experienced the same pattern as longliners, and the fish did not return to the fishing banks until two months after the blasts ended each year.

In 2012 — three years after the last seismic shooting — catches were still low in comparison to those before the first year of seismic surveys. 

Whaling 

“The night of Sunday 24 May [the vessel] Kato arrives in the catching area, and hunting is good for both of us during the morning. In the middle of the day a seismic vessel comes into the area. We are told to keep a distance. Quite soon we notice that the whales in the area change behaviour, they become more and more restless; they swim in all directions with great speed, jumping. It is impossible to come close to them (which we depend on) and suddenly they disappear. The rest of the day we search the area in all directions to see if we are able to find the whales again, but there is nothing in sight.

“On Monday we move to another area … we find some whales. The seismic vessel arrives again and the same thing happens. The whales in the area go crazy, swim in all directions, jump above the surface and disappear. The occurrence of bait in the sea also disappeared when the seismic vessel went forward, and the waters seemed dead.” — Kato‘s captain, Dag Narve Myklebust, interviewed by Fiskeribladet on 28 May 2009.

Since 2009

Independent of the blasts in LoVeSe (in 2207, 2008, 2009) seismic “surveys” have been conducted several hundred nautical miles north of our fishing grounds in the summertime. Until 2012 those seismic blastings would take place from May to October. In 2012, the present Minister of Oil decided to start the “surveys” in close-up areas in March-April and the spawning cod migrated away from the spawning grounds. This happened for several years and the cod fisheries’ season was shortened every time the blasts started.

In 2015, six years after the blasts in LoVeSe ended, coalfish began migrating into our fishing grounds again. But since then every time seismic blasts take place off Troms and Finnmark counties — hundreds of nautical miles away — the coalfish fisheries in our areas are disturbed. 

2. Summary 

Several reports indicate that something is going wrong in the marine environment, and the race for new oil reserves, aided by comprehensive seismic blasts around the world, makes it likely that seismic surveys create extensive damages and consequences. 

Norway’s law of marine resources is based on an important precautionary principle that has not yet been enforced by Norwegian authorities. 

Norwegian fishermen’s experiences are unambiguous and well documented. Seismic blasts scare fish and sea mammals a large distance away. Many fishermen believe that when the pressure waves influence fish at large distances, the explosions must create dramatic effects for all kinds of life beneath the surface. 

We can not exclude a scenario where a large number of fish and biomass are being killed during seismic blasts. 

Our conclusions coincide with the indications put forward in the media during the years 2007 to 2010. If our conclusions are correct, all life connected to the sea is badly damaged by seismic blasts.  

Norwegian fishermen are strictly and continuously regulated by the Norwegian authorities. But the fishermen are frustrated by the lack of regulations pursuant to Norwegian law for seismic vessels. 

The Norwegian fishermen’s experiences and the conclusions of Institute of Marine Research and Norwegian legislation show that Norwegian authorities accept a situation where the Norwegian coast guard is taking no actions against seismic vessels that demonstrably and increasingly “are destroying the opportunity of catch by shooting, noise or other improper conduct” (Norwegian law of marine resources). Our authorities ignore the fact that seismic vessels evidently destroy fisheries every time such vessels are closer than 18 nautical miles to fishing vessels and fishing grounds.

The example from the fishing grounds close to Andenes show that seismic blasts might damage fishery for years. The rich fishery for coalfish has been down since the first year the shootings took place (2007).

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Bjørnar Nicolaisen
Bjornar Nicolaisen is a Norwegian cod fisherman and an outspoken voice against the use of seismic blasts as a tool for oil exploration.

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