Africa|Energy|Environment|Exploration|Financial|Gas|Marine|Oil And Gas|Oil-and-gas|Petroleum|Resources|Sensors|Tourism|Underground|Water|Environmental
Africa|Energy|Environment|Exploration|Financial|Gas|Marine|Oil And Gas|Oil-and-gas|Petroleum|Resources|Sensors|Tourism|Underground|Water|Environmental

Coastal communities call for greater consultation on oil and gas exploration

30th September 2022

By: Donna Slater

Features Deputy Editor and Chief Photographer


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Large- and small-scale fishers and communities on the Wild Coast of South Africa request that, at the very least, more scientific research be done on the effects of exploration activities, and that various stakeholders undertake greater engagement about such activities to gain a better understanding of any potential impacts of the activities.

This was the message conveyed by community leaders who came together at the second precolloquium dialogue on August 25 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre to discuss the possible “coexistence of the upstream petroleum and fishing industries in South Africa”.

The dialogue was jointly hosted by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), and the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (Pasa).

A joint statement by various community and environmental organisations describes the engagement as an attempt to “pacify and weaken” the clear message small-scale fishing communities have been sending to the DMRE and Pasa against the “pillaging” of their coastal waters.

“Oil and gas development and fishing activities cannot coexist,” reads the statement, which is endorsed by the Masifundise Development Trust, One Ocean Hub, The Green Connection, the Coastal Justice Network, KwaZulu-Natal Subsistence Fisherfolks, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, and the SA Fishers Collective.

The community and environmental organisations further state that the dialogue is an attempt by the DMRE and Pasa to make oil and gas exploration “palatable” to fishing communities, and is “deeply concerning and deceptive”.

Those concerned about the impacts of seismic surveys worry about the immediate, short- and long-term effects the noises could have on the marine environment.

Crux of the Matter

Seismic surveying in a marine environment is conducted by noises generated by submerged airguns, which send seismic sound waves through water and into the subsurface of the Earth to investigate underground properties, mostly in search of petroleum, natural gas and other mineral deposits.

DFFE oceans and coast specialist scientist Steven Kirkman says the greatest acoustic energy generated during a seismic survey is downwards, although significant energy is also radiated in other directions, including almost horizontally: “It is almost omni-directional in the ocean.”

The greatest energy is radiated at lower frequencies, and “can transmit very far in the marine environment – hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres have been observed”.

Kirkman adds that because a sound pulse is generated every few seconds, the background noise produced during seismic surveys can be elevated almost continuously.

“This exposes a wide range of species and habitat to chronically elevated sound levels during the course of a seismic survey.”

Further, he says evidence shows the predominant frequency range of seismic surveys is within the hearing range of many marine organisms, including cetaceans and most fish species.

Such animals rely on specific frequencies of sound and their sense of hearing for survival functions, such as communication, finding mates and detecting prey and predators.

“[Therefore] the noise can interfere with the way in which they receive acoustic signals by masking the natural signals that they are supposed to receive.”

Kirkman adds that the elevated noise levels can also have a range of other biological effects, including behavioural and stress responses among ocean animals and, for those more acutely exposed to the noise, there could be physical and physiological effects, such as temporary or permanent hearing loss or other organ damage.

Even if the hearing frequency of animals does not overlap with that of the seismic noise, they can still be affected by the loudness of the noise, which is equivalent to sound pressure levels of about 260 dB, he notes.

Although a lot of research has been conducted on the impacts of underwater noise, including seismic surveys, much of this has focused on whales and dolphins.

“There are still many gaps in our understanding, especially with regard to other groups, such as fish and invertebrates.”

Some of the research has produced “very conflicting” results, cautions Kirkman.

A prime example of this is the international literature on the impacts of seismic noise on plankton, including zooplankton and ichthyoplankton, the latter being the larvae and eggs of fish.

“Most laboratory-based studies have shown that there are no impacts on plankton beyond about 10 m from the sound source, but one study in Australia reported mortality and severely reduced abundance more than a kilometre from the sound source,” he relays.

Kirkman highlights that zooplankton are vital for the functioning of marine ecosystems, and any impact on the species will significantly affect fish and whales.

However, he says another field study produced results that contradict these findings.

“Some [laboratory-based studies on fish] have shown that the noise can cause injury to fish, including permanent threshold shifts in hearing, and barotrauma – pressure- induced injury to the gas chambers in fishes, and also behavioural responses in the wild.

“In the field, some studies have shown changes in the vertical distribution of fishes as far as about 5 km from the sound source,” states Kirkman.

Meanwhile, research – presented at the dialogue by the independent Australian Institute of Marine Science’s representatives, Dr Mark Meekan and Dr Miles Parsons – that focused on the Red Emperor species of fish off the coast of Australia showed little disturbance among the species.

This study, conducted within a 2 500 km2 fishery management zone, near the Pilbara coast of Australia, involved using multiple acoustic sensors, the tagging and tracking of 387 Red Emperors and the deployment of about 600 underwater cameras to track and measure fish behaviour before and after seismic survey noises were emitted.

“The results reveal there were no short-term or long-term effects on the abundance, behaviour and movement of bottom-living fishes. This suggests seismic surveys have little impact on commercially valuable fish species in this environment,” says Meekan.

Concerns Linger

Notwithstanding these scientific contradictions, South African fishing communities, environmental activists and concerned communities are objecting to poor engagement by the relevant State departments and oil and gas explorers on matters pertaining to the environment they rely on for tourism, fishing and recreation, besides others.

Commercial fishing industry organisation FishSA chairperson Loyiso Phantshwa says the organisation has identified disturbance of the migration patterns of the species fished in South African oceans, as a result of oil and gas exploration activities, “a number of times”.

Although he says “a degree of research” has been done on the effects of exploration activities on the marine environment, concerns remain about a lasting negative impact, especially on fish stocks in South African waters.

“[In terms of] the research and . . . legal requirements imposed on the oil and gas industry to look into environmental impacts, there are gaps.”

In addition, he says there has been a dire lack of engagement between State departments and oil and gas explorers and the communities that will be most affected by any possible adverse effects caused by exploration activities.

“It cannot be that . . . only the financial needs or the developmental needs [of oil and gas companies] drive a rush to explore in our seas. The sea is a very sensitive area,” he states.

Small-scale fishing nonprofit organisation South African United Fishing Front (SAUFF) chairperson Pedro Garcia, admitting that the SAUFF is neither pro nor anti oil and gas exploration, says the SAUFF and large-scale fishers are in a learning process about sharing ocean resources with other industries.

“We are in an environment where there are great uncertainties in terms of [the] advantages or disadvantages [that] oil and gas [activities] may have on our communities,” he says.

In this regard, he says informative community engagement is critical in taking any future exploration forward.

As such, he says a grassroots communication framework (GCF) is critical to ensure engagements between parties are undertaken constructively.

“Consultation processes in South Africa have been an absolute dismal failure. It has been a tick-box exercise,” says Garcia, adding that many consultations to date have preyed on vulnerable people by, for example, offering free food and conducting presentations in languages often poorly understood by local communities.

The aim of the GCF is to ensure meaningful and informed participation between communities and a multistakeholder consultation group comprising representatives of government and exploration and development companies to have all stakeholders and role-players present for consultation.

Meanwhile, he also explains that the perception of a singular agenda being advanced arises when singular and poorly represented entities approach a community to engage or consult with them and are unable to answer specific questions.

Further, Garcia highlights that, despite the often large sums of capital being spent on mineral exploration programmes, poor planning on the part of the State or an explorer company cannot become the problem of the affected communities.

“Bad planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on our part. You need to give us the time to develop the proper tools for our communities so that they can engage effectively, constructively and meaningfully,” he concludes.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor




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