CAPE MAY — Capt. Jeff Stewart of the Cape May Whale Watcher knows better than most how whales and dolphins are affected by sound, even the tick-tick-tick of his fish finder.
“Just turning off the fish finder makes it better for the whale or dolphin,” Steward told a rally of more than 100 people Monday, including public officials, high school students and their marine biology teacher, environmentalists, and business owners. They gathered at the ocean’s edge to protest an imminent Trump administration plan to sign off on seismic testing to look for oil and gas in the ocean.
“Imagine that air horn times 1,700 every 10 seconds," he said. "It’s torture for marine mammals. It’s torture for the fish. It’s bad for all of us.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Democrat from Cape May County newly elected to Congress, told the crowd he has co-sponsored bills to ban seismic testing and oil drilling in the ocean, even as the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is preparing to rule on applications that would allow five oil and gas companies to test in areas along the Atlantic Coast, and is working on a five-year proposal for offshore drilling.
Van Drew said that the issue crosses party lines, and that banning seismic testing is pro-business as well as pro-environment. He said he was disappointed that President Donald Trump, whose own business history includes casinos along the Jersey Shore, would green light the testing.
Seismic testing uses air-gun blasts to search for oil and gas resources beneath the ocean, a method researchers have said could harm marine mammals.
The New Jersey Legislature has passed a law that would effectively prohibit permits for testing in state-controlled waters, which stretch three miles out from the coast.
“I really would hope President Trump would change his mind on this issue,” Van Drew said. “This is such an important issue, whether it be to Republicans or Democrats, for business people, for environmentalists, to our coast. Fishing and tourism is a major industry in the United States of America, and certainly along our coast. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth taking a chance.”
Anna May Coones and Margo Waring of Cape May said they are Trump supporters in general, but came to the rally holding signs reading “Don’t Drill Our Coast” and “Oil & Water Don’t Mix!” They said they hoped Trump would take note of the New Jersey protests and put a stop to any imminent testing or drilling.
Nearby, another protester held up a sign that read, “Trump Don’t Surf.”
Cindy Zipf of Clean Ocean Action said the administration’s draft drilling plan would affect just about “every lick of ocean waters” in the country. “This is a nonpartisan issue,” she said. She said every governor along the Atlantic Coast is opposed to offshore drilling.
“The gateway drug to it all is seismic blasting,” she said. “We’re talking from the smallest zooplankton to the largest whales that are going to get whacked.”
Sandra Meola of the New Jersey Audubon Society said climate change, and the reliance on fossil fuels that is behind the desire for the seismic testing, threatens the hundreds of migratory bird species that rely on clean beaches as they fly over during their migration. “Our ocean and vulnerable coastal communities are no place for fossil fuel development and seismic testing,” she said.
Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, said seismic testing presents a threat to the region’s “ocean waters, marine mammals, coastal economy, and delicate ecosystem.”
“Seismic testing, a noise that is so loud that it disturbs, injures and kills marine life, harms commercial fisheries and disrupts coastal economies," she said. “These blasts from seismic air guns are repeated every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for days and weeks at a time.”
The permitting documents, she said, indicate that the effects would be felt from Cape May to Cape Canaveral, Fla., with effects experienced for up to 1,800 miles.
“Cape May County and all of New Jersey has too much at risk to be silent on this issue," she said. “One final signature is needed at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management before the testing can begin.”
Assemblyman Matthew W. Milam (D., Cumberland) summed up many people’s feelings Monday when he said, “It’s our backyard. Leave us alone.”