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Draško, you study cetaceans in Croatian waters for two decades. What are your main concerns about the recent seismic activities in Croatian waters?
There are two main types of impact from the seismic survey that could have an influence on Cetaceans – one is direct injury, based on acute physical damage caused by the sound emission, this could vary from fatal to long or short term injury. The other aspect is disturbance resulting in a number of impacts on the individuals and populations.

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Draško Holcer, a researcher working for the Blue World Institute of Marine Research and Conservation

Although mortality incidents are usually the most obvious consequence of high-levels sound emissions in the sea, I believe that we should actually be more concerned with the longer term effects of non-fatal injuries and the impact of disturbance. For example – Cetaceans depend on sound under water, if their hearing is impaired, or they are deafened due to injuries to their ears they will not be fully fit for life in the sea and that could impact their survival and thus the population in the long term. Furthermore, disturbance causes displacement, changing the regular routine and potential migration patterns, and for instance, changes to prey distribution. Animals that are forced to abandon their primary habitats may enter areas already inhabited by other groups causing direct or indirect prey competition, maybe even aggression between groups. Newborn and juvenile animals become stressed and could die, there may be a lack of food, and energy is wasted on extra migrations to avoid seismic areas resting in exhaustion and other potential physiological pressures. Again, this could have a long term effect on the species.
All of these aspects and other potential impacts should be combined with other data so that some predictions and potential mitigation measures could be devised as part of an environmental impact assessment, which should have been done prior to the seismic survey. Unfortunately this was not done and could also raise issues of a legal nature, depending on the legal position of the state and its commitments to regional and international agreements.

Grafik Seismik KroatienHow long have the seismic activities been undertaken? Have seismic activities been undertaken near or within protected areas and what are your concerns in that context?
The seismic survey started on the 7th of September 2013 and ended on the 21st January 2014, to my knowledge. It covered the entire outer part of the Croatian territorial sea and Croatian Exclusive Economic Zone. During the survey the ship entered, or was very close to (a few hundred meters to 2 kilometers) a number of candidate Special Areas of Conservation SAC (future Natura 2000 sites). Two of these areas, along the Istrian coast in the Northern Adriatic and around Vis Island in the Central Adriatic, have been proposed as SAC’s for bottlenose dolphins.

We know that Cuvier’s beaked whales are in particular sensitive to intense noise. Are there any Cuvier’s beaked whales inhabiting Croatian waters and potentially affected by the surveys?
Our previously published research has indicated that the southern Adriatic sea might be an important area for Cuvier’s beaked whale. Furthermore, in cooperation with Institute for Environmental Protection and Research – ISPRA from Rome, the Blue World Institute has carried out two aerial surveys of Cetaceans and sea turtle abundance in the Adriatic Sea (in 2010 and 2013). These two surveys confirmed a number of sightings of Cuvier’s beaked whales (even accompanied by calves). As the seismic survey was carried out also in the deepest parts of the southern Adriatic, we could expect that Cuvier’s beaked whales inhabiting the area could have been affected. Still, to my knowledge, there were no strandings reported in the adjacent areas.

Do you know whether scientists were consulted prior to the activities and the appropriate measures (EIAs.) been imposed to prevent negative impacts on marine wildlife?
According to the official information from the Ministry of the Environmental and Nature Protection, no EIA was requested. Although I cannot say if such a study would prevent the possible negative impacts of the survey, I strongly believe that (was the study done properly) it would have provided us with at least a list of possible impacts not only on Cetaceans but also on other marine life.

What are your main concerns in relation to the issue?
My main concern is that we did not address the possible impacts, we did not discuss possible mitigation measures and finally we did not prepare information on the status of the populations prior to the survey. Hence, we will not be able to assess the possible impact. Based on our research in the Adriatic sea we will try to compare our research and survey results with our future work. However, if we will be able to link the results with any impact from the seismic survey remains to be seen.

How is the mood among the stakeholder groups such as tourism and fisheries interest groups in response to the planned activities to drill for oil in the Adriatic Sea?
Croatia is currently in a deep economic recession and people are eager to see any form of economic recovery. I am personally deeply sympathetic with hundreds of thousands of people that are affected by this economic crisis. Still, regardless of the economic problems, tourism is our biggest “industry” providing foreign capital every year, so many people are also quite cautious and have their reservations regarding the potential for oil drilling. How this entire episode is going to develop remains unknown, but I believe that it is in all of our best interests to tighten the environmental protection procedures and streamline our protocols for environmental safety as that could be the only thing that could help us preserve our sea, biodiversity and our coastal economies.